By Debbie Adams
The Roanoke County School Board met once again on August 5 to receive updates from School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his staff on plans to
reopen schools on August 24. Teacher workdays will begin next Monday, August 10. The board has taken to meeting on a weekly basis due to the
COVID-19 pandemic and the members’ desire to keep current on reopening plans and to help facilitate the plans as they can.
Administrators at the Central Office level and school level have been meeting for months to come up with a comprehensive and highly detailed plan for returning as many students to school as possible for as many days a week as possible, following CDC and Virginia Department of Health guidelines.
Currently the plan is for students in grades PreK-2 to return to school for in-person instruction five days a week (or study remotely 100 percent of the time); students in grades 3-12 may choose 100 percent remote learning or in-school classes two days a week with remote learning on the other three. High school students in grades 9-12 may even choose the RCPS Online Academy. (All of the details on all programs are available at https://www.rcps.us/domain/1614 .)
School Board members are concerned about how working families will cope with the hybrid plan that sends upper elementary, middle school, and high school students for in-school instruction two days a week and how the younger students in grades 3-6 will be provided for on the three days they are not in school.
The school system has facilitated a task force involving non-profits and local churches developing and instituting day programs for students which are high quality and affordable.
Parents are urged to work through the United Way Smart2Start program ( www.smart2start.org ) to apply for day programs for their children.
CARES Funds are being used to help families who are struggling financially.
Task force co-chair Nancy Hans from the Prevention Council of Roanoke County says they wholeheartedly want “to support kids and families,” in these unprecedented times. The group hit the ground running on July 27 and is meeting twice a week formally to get the program ready for August 24, noting the situation is “urgent.”
With less than three weeks to go before schools in Roanoke County reopen, the main challenge for these day programs is staffing. Sites in each area of the county are being arranged through YMCA programs and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, often in local churches such as Vinton Baptist.
Tim Greenway, who represents the Vinton area on the school board, is most anxious to locate more sites in East County where day programs can be housed. Board member Don Butzer suggested contacting local universities with teacher education programs who might be able to provide college credits for their future teachers to help staff the programs.
At the work session on August 5, revised school hours were revealed, to adjust for COVID-19 reopening plans and restrictions. Elementary school students will begin their day at 7:45 a.m. and conclude at 1:30 p.m. Middle and high school students will begin at 8:20 a.m. and end at 2:25 p.m.
HR Director Jim Bradshaw shared a staffing update with the board. Twenty- one employees have resigned due to COVID-19 issues—mainly health issues. Ten of those were instructional assistants where a large applicant pool exists. Only three teachers have resigned.
Board members expressed concerns about the numbers of substitute teachers who will be available this year and are especially worried about the bus driver and substitute bus driver numbers. Bradshaw told the board that 70 of 155 bus drivers are 65 years old or older.
Executive Director of Administration Dr. Rhonda Stegall briefed the board on details of the health plan for reopening schools. After discussion with Dr. Molly O’Dell from the Virginia Department of Health, temperature checks will now be mandated for all students arriving at school—and for all staff. The school system has purchased nine non-touch thermometers for each school and will be training staff on proper procedures for using them.
Flexible scheduling will be employed to coordinate staffing needs to accomplish the temperature checks each morning for bus riders and car riders. Face coverings are required for all students, staff, and anyone else entering the county’s school buildings. Students may remove their masks when they are seated to work but must put them on when they are out of their seats or less than six feet apart for social distancing.
Dr. Nicely discussed the local metrics being collected by the VDH and CDC on the COVID-19 cases in our area. While the number of cases per 100,000 are categorized as “moderate,” other metrics will allow the school system to open partially for in-person instruction—especially with the addition of daily temperature checks on site.
Stegall mentioned an agreement with Roanoke County on providing testing for school employees free of charge when indicated. Elementary students will receive 40 minutes of recess, as promised, but now divided between 20 minutes of outdoor activity and 20 minutes of indoor activity, given all the time-consuming extras of dealing with hygiene this school year.
Stegall told the board that principals and athletic directors have discussed VHSL guidelines for sports getting underway. While fall, winter, and spring sports seasons have been condensed and delayed until January, sports practices in small groups (and band) may resume on September 28. Football is the sport causing the greatest concern at this point, including funding the entire sports program without the input of monies from the fall football games.
The numbers of transfer students remain relatively low, with private school students increasing from 29 to 49, and homeschooled numbers increasing from 8 to 19.
Dr. Nicely commented that getting the youngest students into the classroom for direct instruction is definitely worth the vast efforts the school system has made with the reopening plan. He said the key to the success of the program is in getting the community—the public at large–to support the plan and comply with CDC and VDH guidelines in order to keep COVID-19 transmission rates in the area stable so that schools may remain open.
Secondary and Elementary Directors of Instruction Mike Riley and Stephanie Hogan updated the board on online learning registration numbers. At the elementary level, just over 20 percent of students have opted for 100 percent online learning—1186 students (538 of those are in grades K-2).
Twenty-three percent of middle school students (747 students) have registered to study entirely online; 1072 high school students (24.4 percent) will be studying remotely all day every day (286 in the RCPS Online Academy). That averages out to about 22 percent of students studying online—not enough to allow more students in more grade levels to return to school full-time.
In the Vinton area, currently those numbers are 61 elementary students at Bonsack studying online 100 percent of the time, 98 at Herman L. Horn, 58 at Mount Pleasant, and 94 at W.E. Cundiff. At William Byrd Middle, 158 students have signed up for online instruction full time, with 255 at William Byrd High School.
Director of Facilities and Operations Mark Kitta presented an update on bus ridership. As of August 5, 4900 students (36 percent of students) had signed up for bus transportation, 75 percent for both morning and afternoon. Students who have registered will receive bus passes to board the bus.
Finance Director Susan Peterson presented updates on CARES Act funding, both requested and approved. She has prepared an additional list of requests for the Board of Supervisors to share with the schools the $16 million they have received in CARES funding.