By Debbie Adams
Planning for the reopening of schools in this unprecedented year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely complex–and also fraught with dissension in many districts, including Roanoke County.
School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his leadership team spent many weeks developing a “Return to School Plan” which would allow the maximum number of students to return to school for in-person instruction while meeting health guidelines from the CDC and Virginia Department of Health.
On June 25, Nicely and other administrators presented their plan to members of the School Board. Under the plan, when schools reopen on August 24, students in grades PreK-2 will attend school in person five days a week; students in grades 3-12 will attend in a “hybrid plan” with two days of in person instruction and three days of online learning. All students may opt for 100 percent online classes.
That June evening the board was not able to unite in accepting the proposed plan. Tim Greenway, who represents the Vinton Magisterial District, and David Linden from the Hollins District favored more students returning to school, at least through grade 5. Members Mike Wray and Jason Moretz would have liked to see more students in more grade levels return to in-school instruction, but they were insistent upon compliance with CDC and VDH guidelines as was member Don Butzer.
While it would be easier to placate parents and just go back to normal schedules, “at the end of the day, we need to put the safety of students and staff first,” said Moretz.
The board delayed the vote in order to hold a community meeting at Northside High School on July 2 at the insistence of Greenway to solicit public input. They heard from teachers and parents who urged them to limit instruction to virtual learning, those who supported the hybrid plan presented by the school board, and others who wanted all students not medically challenged to return to school full time.
After more deliberations, the board voted unanimously on July 15 to adopt the plan presented by Dr. Nicely.
Greenway said he was voting “reluctantly” for the proposal; he stated then and now that he supports the plan in place 100 percent, but that “it doesn’t go far enough for the at-risk students and age groups.”
His preference had been for students in Grades PreK-5 to return to classrooms five days a week with the PreK-2 students in their elementary schools, grades 3-5 attending classes in the middle schools, and grades 6-8 meeting in the high schools—all adhering to social distancing guidelines and best health practices. High school students in grades 9-12 would all study online as the year began as they are most able to work independently.
With schools set to reopen in less than two weeks, and teachers reporting for workdays on August 10, discord remains on the reopening plan. The Roanoke County Education Association, which initially endorsed the proposed hybrid plan, now supports 100 percent virtual online learning in the interests of student and teacher safety, citing rising cases.
There have been Facebook disputes, and sharing of opposing views—not always courteously—in the media and social media.
The RCEA published a letter stating that 75 percent of educators who are members did not want to return to the classrooms for in-person instruction this fall.
Conversely, on July 22, the School Board received the results of the employee return to work survey which indicated that more than 97 percent of employees said they were able to complete their job responsibilities considering the changes surrounding COVID-19.
Greenway says he has lost a lot of sleep since March when schools across Virginia were closed by Governor Ralph Northam due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has had sleepless nights worrying about children not receiving an education, especially children from economically disadvantaged families and about children and staff becoming ill from exposure to the coronavirus. He has said that his “worst nightmare would be losing just one child or teacher to this virus.”
He fears young children will be left home alone on the three days each week they won’t have in-person instruction.
“At the end of all this, I am worried about children 8 and 9 years old at home by themselves,” Greenway said.
He believes that “for poor and disadvantaged children their only chance of keeping up with the advantaged and entitled is public education. This [part-time in person instruction] will lead to more inequities between the haves and the have-nots.”
He has agonized about families finding affordable day care on the three days they are not in school, about bus ridership numbers, about access to the Internet for families who are financially struggling or living in remote areas, and about students cheating on tests and assignments by Googling for answers when they have not mastered the content.
He is concerned that instructional time is going to be lost because of time spent on hygiene, required recess, early dismissal times, and time in the mornings spent on health screenings and unloading an increased number of car riders. He is unsure that students will be able to comply with face covering and social distancing requirements at the K-2 grade levels.
He has been troubled about missed graduations and proms last spring, and homecoming and athletic events in the upcoming months.
He sees significant problems ahead with hiring enough substitute teachers and bus drivers to cover for absences due to COVID-19.
Greenway has long described bus drivers as among the most important personnel in the school system–the first to see students each day and set the tone for the day, in addition to being charged with transporting students safely to school and back.
As a “God-fearing” man of faith, he says he takes it as his sacred duty to care for the poor and the needy—“the least among us.”
Greenway has commented in the past that the “only reason I ran for a seat on the School Board is to give back to this community that has made me successful in business and in life. I was that kid that needed a village to raise me. Neighbors, family and friends helped me in so many ways.”
Greenway insists that he isn’t “anti-science.” He says there are “so many differing opinions out there on COVID-19 you could find a study to support almost any position.” He does not doubt that the virus is a threat to health and safety but cites conflicting guidelines issued within the same organizations–such as the CDC.
He says pushing for schools to open to more students is not his attempt to give the economy a boost. Although, as a businessman himself, he thinks schools are better served if they operate as a business—”the stakeholders are the parents; the teachers and staff are the employees; Dr. Nicely is the CEO; and the profit is the children’s education. You want to maximize your profit by maximizing the children’s education.”
Once the reopening plan was adopted, Greenway vehemently pressed for the formation of a task force to find affordable, high quality day programs for students on the days when they will not receive in-school instruction. He is especially concerned about families in his Vinton district who he believes might have to choose between “educating or feeding” their children.
Tensions and frustrations are high as school personnel, students, and the community anticipate the upcoming opening of schools with some trepidation about whether schools will be able to remain open or will close again if COVID-19 cases emerge. Greenway hopes everyone will be able to rise to the occasion and do what’s best for all students, especially the most vulnerable.