By Debbie Adams
On July 15, the Roanoke County School Board approved the Return to School Plan proposed by School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his staff. The plan was adopted after weeks of discussion on how to return to school safely and within Virginia and Virginia Health Department guidelines. Nicely described the plan as “expandable and flexible.”
The opening of school will be delayed to Monday, August 24. On that date, students in K-second grade will return to school for full-time instruction, five days a week with reduced class sizes and spread out classroom spaces. Some areas of their school buildings, such as libraries and cafeterias will be turned into classroom space to accommodate social distancing.
Most students in grades 3-12 who have opted to attend school in-person will be split into two groups for “blended instruction” and attend school in-person two days a week in spread out classroom spaces and study online from home three days a week.
The adopted plan provides for six feet social distancing unless students wear face coverings.
Before the plan was adopted, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire when presented with options for 100 percent online instruction or the in-person choices at different grade levels and on whether they would be able to provide transportation for their children.
Enough students chose 100 percent online and providing transportation for their students to make the recommended plan feasible. Not enough chose 100 percent remote learning to expand the full-time in-person learning beyond second grade.
An average of only 15 percent of elementary parents chose 100 percent remote instruction along with 18 percent of middle and high schoolers. More said they would choose 100 percent online learning if schools were to reopen for in-person instruction for all grade levels with no extra social distancing requirements or face coverings required (29 percent elementary, 32 percent middle, and 29 percent high school), but ignoring health guidelines. In the end, this was not something the School Board was willing to do. (No social distancing but wearing face coverings changed the statistics to 19 percent elementary, 25 percent middle, and 23 percent high school electing for 100 percent online.)
Joe LeGault, Supervisor of English and RCPS Online, made a comprehensive presentation on the online learning programs to the School Board before the vote. He noted that fall 2020 virtual instruction will look quite different from the online instruction provided when schools closed in March due to COVID-19— “much more rigorous and robust.” In the spring, in the midst of an unprecedented situation, the emphasis was on maintaining skills with no grades assigned.
New instruction will be provided online this fall. Students will have actual video lessons to view with their actual teachers providing the instruction. Students will be required to complete assignments and will be provided grades based on their work. There will be opportunities for synchronous learning (real-time) for live instruction and asynchronous learning for on-demand instruction.
Roanoke County Public Schools is offering three programs to provide students in grades K-12 with multiple options to receive remote instruction.
“Blended Instruction” for grades 3-12 will combine in-classroom learning experiences with online learning. Each elementary family will have a laptop computer assigned. Last spring, families were surveyed concerning their home Internet availability. For families identified in the survey, RCPS will provide a hotspot for instructional purposes, filtered for security purposes. There is Internet access in all school parking lots as well.
Parents will need to establish a time when students may view the video lessons conducted by their teacher and to complete assignments. Students may submit work via Blackboard on the days that they are not in school or submit them to their teacher when they return. Wednesdays will be used by teachers to provide synchronous sessions with their students to check on their progress and to answer questions that they may have.
The blended students will follow a regular base school schedule that includes four blocks each day. Real-time instruction will occur on the two days students are present and may occur on remote days as well. Classes are taught by teachers at the student’s base school. Pace is set by the instructor with regularly scheduled assignments and due dates.
In Blended Instruction students will have the same teacher for online and in-person instruction.
Blended Instruction courses at the high school level are offered on an A/B basis for the entire year. Middle school English, math, science, and social studies are offered every day.
(Students may shift from Blended Instruction to RCPSOnline if desired.)
“RCPS Online” for grades K-12 provides remote learning five days each week. Students follow a regular base school schedule that includes four subject area courses. Classes are taught by teachers at the student’s base school. The pace of instruction is set by the instructor in accordance with the division curriculum and pacing guides, with regularly scheduled assignments and due dates.
A list of courses offered for grades 9-12 is available on the RCPS website.
(Students may move from this mode of instruction into the RCPS Blended Instruction if conditions warrant.)
Students in grades 9-12 who enroll in the “RCPS Online Academy” will learn remotely five days each week. These students will not follow a traditional classroom schedule. They will be enrolled in up to four courses at a time. Learning is self-paced with real-time instruction on an as-needed basis. Students are taught by RCPSOnline faculty. Much of the instruction is at the student’s own pace within due dates established by the instructor.
Students who start the in RCPSOnline Academy will complete the school year using this mode of instruction. There is no switching to Blended or RCPS Online instruction. The RCPSonline Academy courses are structured differently and do not line up with the blended classes. Therefore, students cannot move in and out of Academy classes.
A list of over 50 courses offered through RCPSOnline Academy for grades 9-12 is available on the RCPS website.
According to LeGault, Roanoke County Schools has offered online learning for high school students for over 16 years. “We have developed rich curriculum, delivered by our teachers, since the very beginning of the program. Our experience with online learning puts us in a unique position to meet the wide range of current needs.”
RCPSOnline Academy classes are through Blackboard, the RCPS learning management system.
There is a pathway to graduation for students seeking both standard and advanced diplomas. Course offerings include both core and elective courses to satisfy VDOE graduation requirements.
Students who are enrolled in the RCPSOnline Academy are eligible to participate in VHSL athletic and academic activities and school-related events such as prom, homecoming and clubs. Roanoke County residents can attend the RCPSOnline Academy at no cost.
There are also supplemental courses students may pay tuition to take which fall outside their regular schedule.
Students in Blended Instruction, RCPS Online or the RCPSOnline Academy will find videos on the RCPS website on “Laptop Orientation,” “Getting Started with Your Laptop,” and “Getting Started with Your Classes.”
More information on online instruction is available at https://www.rcps.us/rcpsonline.
If circumstances change and the state reverts to Phase I or II again, all students will be able to use the online programs.
Dr. Nicely commended LeGault and those who assisted him, “working non-stop” in developing the online programs. He noted RCPS has received inquiries from across the state about the stellar program. Homeschoolers and students from other school systems may be allowed to sign up for the online courses—a financial benefit to the county schools. Nicely envisions this as an “investment in the future—not just a COVID-19 concept.”
School Board member Jason Moretz summed up the reluctant adoption of the reopening plan more hopefully with “this is how we are starting school, not how we are finishing it.”