By Debbie Adams
Roanoke County School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his staff have spent many difficult weeks developing a Return to School Plan for the reopening of schools 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.
Nicely and his staff have consulted with parent, student, safety, and health advisory groups, principals, teachers, pediatricians, other school systems, the Virginia Department of Education, and others, in developing the plan which will allow Roanoke County schools to reopen on August 13 with a combination of in-person instruction and remote instruction, while maintaining social distancing.
“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 PreK-2 to attend school on a daily basis, because those are the years when students are developing the reading skills that their entire education is based on. This action will assist parents with the youngest children in childcare.
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. The schools would need help with transporting students.
Because RCPS 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.
Schools would reopen under this schedule, with hopes that it could be adjusted as state guidelines change moving through the Forward Virginia Plan and schools could transition, allowing more students to attend school in-person.
Families will be allowed to choose 100 percent remote instruction for their children.
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.
Other parents and students want to wait to hold in-person instruction until a vaccine is developed Nicely said.
The comprehensive plan presented to the school board covered almost every contingency, taking into account transportation issues; providing laptop computers for all families, hotspots for families in areas which do not have Internet access, and wireless in school parking lots and community centers; sanitizing the schools continually; the steep costs of implementing the plan; the increased role of school nurses; teaching students behaviors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus; plans for continuing to provide counseling services and the counseling program for students on all grade levels; appropriate accommodations for students with special needs including special education, English learners, the gifted, and those with special health needs; and concerns for employees’ safety and their own childcare needs.
Because cafeterias will need to be used for instruction to maintain social distancing guidelines, meals will be delivered to classrooms.
The school system will work to schedule children in the same families to attend school on the same days.
Grades PreK-2 will dismiss one hour early each day for teacher planning time. They will receive Encore classes daily and 40 minutes of recess/physical activity daily. Instruction will focus on Language Arts, reading, and math with social studies and science embedded.
Grades 3-12 may need to dismiss one hour early depending upon decisions made concerning transportation.
Teachers and staff will be working to remediate students who experienced learning loss when schools were closed. Unlike the last months of the 2019-2020 session, students will be graded on their assignments and held accountable once schools reopen. New instruction will be introduced, not just maintaining skills.
In developing the Return to School Plan, the use of churches and other spaces to conduct classes was considered but rejected due to lack of safety and security and the need for more staff. Having all students attend everyday without physical distancing was considered but would require disregarding recommendations from health experts and would lead to more frequent outbreaks and starting/stopping of school at individual schools; having all students do remote learning while waiting for a vaccine was considered unnecessary under CDC guidelines, causing a negative impact on learning; and half day schedules would be more difficult for families and require more frequent bus runs, adding more costs.
School Board member Tim Greenway requested a plan be developed that would allow students in grades PreK-5 to attend school in-person each day. He noted the difficulties for families of finding day care for children, monumental transportation issues, staff safety, and the loss of extracurricular activities. He is most concerned about the effects of another disrupted school year on “poor and disadvantaged” students who are at-risk in normal times.
Member Jason Moretz commented that while it would be easier for the school system to appease parents and just go back to normal schedules with every child attending, “at the end of the day, we need to put the safety of staff and students first.” He focused on CDC guidelines and expressed his doubts that all or even several more grade levels of students could return to school and still observe social distancing.
Member Mike Wray expressed his concern for the childcare needs of parents who are already struggling under the COVID-19 pandemic. He would also like to see students in PreK-5 return in-person “if it can be done safely.”
Member David Linden said he found the recommended plan developed by RCPS to be “mindboggling,” and felt that perhaps a timeframe should be attached to the re-opening schedule, with the schedule reevaluated after a period of time.
School Board Chairman Don Butzer shared alarming statistics about the COVID-19 pandemic with 34,000 new cases daily and eight states spiking in the number of cases. The United States has four percent of the world’s population but is experiencing 25 percent of COVID-19 cases and 25 percent of its deaths.
His research showed that while 80 percent of those with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, 18 percent have severe symptoms, and two percent die—much higher than the 0.1 percent who die from contracting the flu.
Butzer said that he would not support a reopening plan that did not adhere to CDC and local health department guidelines.
There is every hope that the need for this schedule will be brief and that the school system will be able to transition to a schedule where more students will be able to attend school in-person.
RCPS will be communicating with parents to determine who will need or want 100% remote learning, and which ones can provide transportation for their students.