Across The Virginias: Boards of Education consider fall reopenings amid potential COVID-19 spikes

By Bobby Bordelon for
Featuring reporting by Pam Dudding, Heather Clower, Suzanne Stewart, Debbie Adams, and Aila Boyd

As the United States sees COVID-19 cases on the rise once again, boards of education throughout the Virginia are reconsidering how to bring students back to school this fall. County to county flexibility, transportation issues, and getting education technology into the hands of students and teachers are top priority for each state, with local health conditions determining the specifics of each plan.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a phased approach that allows schools to slowly resume in-person classes for summer school and the coming academic year:

• Phase One: Special Education programs and child care for working families.
• Phase Two: Phase One plus preschool through third grade students, English learners, and summer camps in school buildings.
• Phase Three: All students may receive in-person instruction as can be accommodated with strict social distancing measures in place, which may require alternative schedules that blend in-person and remote learning for students.
• Beyond Phase Three: Divisions will resume “new-normal” operations under future guidance.

In West Virginia, rather than the state providing a phase in schedule, Governor Jim Justice and the School Re-entry Advisory Council established three re-entry possibilities for in-person schooling, determined in part by the governor:

• Safer at School/Safer at Home: Students will attend school a minimum of four days, with one day of remote learning, or some similar configuration determined by the county. On the remote days, the building will be rigorously sanitized (preferred elementary school scenario to best meet development needs).
• Blending Learning Delivery Models: Students may attend schools a limited number of days. Class sizes may be limited and/or creative scheduling implemented to minimize student mobility in the school. All students will be engaged in learning five days a week through a blended learning model.
• Full Remote Delivery: If an outbreak occurs and a stay at home order is issued, all students will complete school assignments remotely five days a week. This will require the teacher and students to communicate daily and develop a process for monitoring, reviewing, and/or grading of students.

Counties may use the scenarios or hybrid models to best meet the needs of their students.
The flexibility has each and every county looking forward to the August reopening possibilities, with many simply planning and waiting for the local case loads to determine how to move forward. The counties for each state are facing similar challenges and look to solve them through several strategies.

“The plan is to reopen in August, but it will be very different than what it has been in the past,” said Craig County, VA, Superintendent Jeanette Warwick “Please note that what we share tonight is everchanging as to what is happening with the COVID-19.”

Samuel Foster presented the Board with Virginia’s Phase Two mandated plan for schools to adhere to in the fall. The county has plans for phases two and three, should Northam allow for further reopenings.

“We are going to have to change our mindset when it comes to education,” he explained. “The days of the children coming to us are gone and we must take school to them.” He continued, “Bottom line, we are creating the Craig County Virtual Academy (CCVA) which will include all students at all grade levels and all interests and all abilities. CCVA is a learning space taught by our teachers, using our own curriculum and pacing guides and delivered through the CLM System – ‘Learning anytime, anywhere.’” A letter will be sent to all parents, inviting students to enroll in the Virtual Academy.

Foster also noted that if the mindset isn’t changed, the county’s public schools will lose students. Parents may choose to homeschool as it doesn’t take many students not returning to school to lesson their budget drastically. He added, “Parents expect us to provide continual learning experiences.”

Sanitation and masks are a critical component of schools returning – in Tucker County, WV, the board considered how each level of schooling, and how much the students moved from class to class, informed the schedules.

“The hope is that Pre-K through five students, which the state declares those students to be elementary, will attend school four days a week,” said Superintendent Alicia Lambert. On the fifth day, the school would have a deep sanitation. In addition, students would not be allowed to gather in congregated areas, such as cafeterias, gyms, or the bus room. Instead, they would report straight to the classroom.

“Middle school you have an option to do a four day week, which is what I hope we are able to do,” Lambert said, acknowledging that a blended model was also on the table. The blended model would have two days of in person teaching and two of virtual learning. “I’m really hoping that we are able to do the four days with middle school as well much like elementary, because I think the more in person time that we have with the students the better.”

Due to the structure of high school courses, the blended model would have students come on one day and receive instruction for the duration of each block with the following day being spent at home doing the work assigned the day prior. Students would return the third day to turn in their work and receive more instruction then spend the following day completing assignments at home.

In addition to allocating $224,000 towards sanitizing agents, janitorial equipment, and virtual learning technology, the board much also plan for transportation – Tucker County does not have enough buses to ensure students sit skipping seats, one child per seat. Because of this masks will likely have to wear masks.

“They’re telling us right now that the students will have to wear masks on the buses because there’s no way to social distance on the bus,” Lambert said.

In Pocahontas County, WV, the board of education has formed a committee to work on a re-entry plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Superintendent Terrence Beam said he has talked to other county superintendents to see what their plans are and is working with the committee to come up with a plan that is safe for the students and employees.

“Our biggest obstacle, by far, is going to be transportation because our buses are covering a large area, and if you have to social distance on the bus – I don’t know how you transport students to and from school,” Beam said. The committee will work out the kinks of the plan and Beam said they want to do it right, so they will work on it further before presenting the proposal to the board.

In addition, the Pocahontas board began working on a grant application to the USDA, applying for $1 million worth of funding to provide student and staff with the necessary technology to enact remote learning.

“The state Department of Education has asked us to really focus on being able to put devices in every child’s hand – preschool through twelfth grade,” said Director of Technology Ruth Bland. “We are working with the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation to help us with the grant.”

Roanoke County, VA, School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his staff have spent many difficult weeks developing a Return to School Plan which they presented to School Board members during a lengthy work session on June 25. The board will take action on the recommended plan on July 2. The plan is based upon Virginia being in Phase 3 and the guidelines for that phase.

“We want all students to be in school as soon as possible,” said Nicely. “Given the governor’s current restrictions related to social distancing, we believe most students would be better served with a staggered or hybrid schedule than not attending school in-person at all. We’re trying to meet as many needs as possible while protecting the safety of our students and families.”

The plan basically allows students in grades Pre K-2 to attend school on a daily basis, students in grades 3-12 would be split into two groups and receive in-person instruction in schools at 50 percent capacity on two days a week with remote instruction on the other three days. Families will be allowed to choose 100 percent remote instruction for their children.

The board also noted that schools would need help with transporting students – because Roanoke County public school buses have high seat backs, students will not have to be required to sit in every other seat. Each seat can be used and children from the same family can share a seat. But that still limits a bus to 26 students.

Nicely said that he has heard from many parents who would like for school to start normally with instruction for everyone five days a week without physical distancing.

“While we understand their viewpoint, the fact is that we would be disregarding the recommendations of public health experts who tell us that doing so would lead to more frequent outbreaks and starting/stopping of the school year at individual schools,” if outbreaks occurred.

Although no final decision was made in the June meeting, Calhoun County, WV, Superintendent Kelli Whytsell and the Board of Education found that scenario one, “Safer at School/Safer at Home,” would be the best situation for the learning environment. Students would attend school a minimum of four days, with one day of remote learning, or some similar configuration determined by the county. It would require four days at school for students and one day off so the schools could be sanitized. Board members also discussed the pros and cons of having Friday off, or two days attending, with Wednesday off for sanitizing, and two more days of attendance. No final decision was made in the June board meeting.

Interim Botetourt County, VA, Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Larry Massie said that schools will open on August 11 in accordance with the previously adopted 2020-2021 school calendar. Transportation and classroom capacities are expected to be the most significant limiting factors on the number of students served daily in each school building. Limits pertaining to transportation and facility use, he said, will require re-evaluation. The main topic of discussion at the June 11 School Board meeting had to do with a plan for fully implementing remote learning should school closures be required in the future.

“We are working diligently to plan for a safe 2020-2021 school year and on-time opening in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “It is our goal that students will receive in-person and remote learning as determined by capacity and physical distancing standards established by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Health, Directives from the Governor’s Office, and guidance from the Virginia Department of Education. … All decisions will be made in the best interest of our students. Updates will be made available as decisions are made regarding the details of our return to school plan.”

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