By Debbie Adams
Members of the Roanoke County School Board held a work session on July 1 to continue discussions on the 2020-2021 Return to School Plan proposed by School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely. Nicely first presented his recommendations at a school board meeting on June 25.
A vote was originally scheduled to take place on the plan on July 2; however, some dissension among board members about the plan led them to postpone the vote, schedule the additional work session, and reschedule the school board meeting for Northside High School on July 2 to solicit more input from the public on the plan.
At the work session, Dr. Nicely reviewed the plan once more which would return students in grades PreK-two to the classroom in-person five days a week once schools reopen on August 13. Students in grades 3-12 would attend school on a staggered schedule two days a week in-person and study remotely from home the other three days. The plan is based on the educational needs of students, the safety and security of students and personnel, and current Phase 3 guidelines for social distancing.
Students would be divided into two groups. One group would attend on Mondays and Thursdays. The other would attend on Tuesdays and Fridays. Nicely said the days were purposefully chosen to keep students engaged at regular intervals. If students attended on consecutive days on Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday as some have suggested, they would be away from school for almost an entire week between their scheduled sessions.
In the proposed plan Wednesdays would be set aside for planning for upper elementary, middle school, and high school teachers to accommodate their need for more preparation time to teach both remotely and in-person.
Nicely also said that the implementation of the plan rests on parents being able to provide transportation for their children to school as social distancing will limit the number of students on buses. Because the school system has buses with high-backed seats—considered to be a physical barrier—each bus seat could be occupied.
Families may also opt for 100 percent remote instruction.
Nicely shared his discussions with Dr. Molly O’Dell, Director of Communicable Disease for the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts for the Virginia Department of Health about broadening the plan to include third graders in daily in-person attendance as well.
He asked her whether smaller children would need less physical distance between students—possibly three to four feet instead of six feet—as their coughs would project shorter distances; and especially considering the school system has purchased plexiglass shields to place between students to mitigate the virus.
Even with the potential addition of third graders to the mix, some school board members, including Vinton’s representative Tim Greenway, still expressed their desire for all students in grades PreK-5 to attend school in-person daily. Greenway is especially concerned about “poor and disadvantaged students” falling further behind.
Catawba representative Don Butzer adamantly stated that he will not be able to vote for any plan that does not follow the CDC and local health department guidelines.
Vice Chairman David Linden said that in a time when the school board, the community, and the nation seem so divided, board members remain undivided in their commitment to the education and well-being of Roanoke County students.
No consensus was reached on a reopening plan at the work session. The plan that did emerge is to listen to input from the community at the Northside meeting on July 2.
That will be followed immediately by a survey sent online to families concerning each individual child in the school system to determine whether parents would choose for their students to attend in person or study remotely 100 percent of the time; if they would choose remote or in-person learning if the plan could extend to third, fourth, or fifth grades; and if they would choose remote or in-person learning if the school board approves in-person learning for all grades with minimum social distancing, and with or without a mask requirement.
The final two questions in the survey concern bus transportation and whether parents will be able to provide transportation before or after school, both, or neither—the linchpin for determining how to proceed with the reopening plan.
Families who do not respond online will be contacted by the schools to solicit this vital information. Nicely emphasized that this is not an anonymous survey—responses are essential in determining school capacity and what grade levels will be able to attend in-person each day.
Board members and Dr. Nicely commiserated over the continually evolving health information available, school insurance liability issues, and the urgency of reaching a decision as school is slated to begin in a few short weeks. “Time is ticking” said member Jason Moretz. “Families and teachers need information.”
Members of the board expressed their confidence in Dr. Nicely and his determination to develop the best plan for reopening prioritizing the education of students and the health of students and staff.