What will ed­u­ca­tion look like this fall?

Va. schools await guid­ance as they plan for re­open­ing

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUSTIN MAT­TINGLY Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch

Virginia stu­dents are set to learn this week when and how they might be able to re­turn to school in the fall.

Gov. Ralph Northam is ex­pected on Tues­day to ad­dress school re­open­ing, some­thing he had ini­tially planned to do last week. The an­nounce­ment will give more guid­ance to school dis­tricts and col­leges across the state that have been mov­ing for­ward with their own plans to re­turn.

Northam be­came just the sec­ond gover­nor to close schools for the rest of the aca­demic year when he did so on March 23, with shut­tered schools tran­si­tion­ing to vir­tual ed­u­ca­tion. He said last month that he’s hope­ful schools will be able to re­open in the fall as

COVID-19 continues its spread while, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Virginia, not yet reach­ing its peak for new daily cases.

Spe­cific guide­lines will be re­leased after Northam re­leases his plans for re­open­ing schools, said

Virginia De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion spokesman Charles Pyle. School lead­ers across the state are ex­pect­ing an ap­proach sim­i­lar to how Northam re­opened busi­nesses, with sep­a­rate phases each loos­en­ing some re­stric­tions and the state set­ting the “floor” for con­straints.

Some schools across the coun­try and the world have al­ready re­opened, pro­vid­ing a glimpse into what the fall could look like if stu­dents re­turn in

Virginia. Teach­ers walk­ing around with pool noo­dles to en­force so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Tem­per­a­ture screen­ings for stu­dents and staff. Ro­tat­ing days in the class­room.

“Schools are go­ing to look very dif­fer­ent,” said John Bai­ley, a re­searcher at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, which last month pub­lished a com­pre­hen­sive blue­print for school re­open­ing. “We still have this loom­ing threat of a sec­ond or third wave of the virus that could cause schools to close even longer.”

School sys­tems across Virginia await the state’s guid­ance, which they say will help craft what schools look like when they re­open.

“Our plan will be largely de­pen­dent upon the of­fi­cial guid­ance we re­ceive from the gover­nor, the Virginia De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Virginia De­part­ment of Health, which we an­tic­i­pate we will be re­ceiv­ing soon,” said Hanover County Pub­lic Schools spokesman Chris Whit­ley. “This will help to in­form our de­ci­sions and fur­ther de­velop our plans, which will take sig­nif­i­cant time, ef­fort and care­ful thought.”

The county school sys­tem cre­ated a panel that is look­ing at three open­ing sce­nar­ios (on-time, de­layed and stag­gered) along with three in­struc­tional sce­nar­ios (in-per­son, vir­tual and a mix of the two) and other fac­tors, such as how to so­cially dis­tance in class­rooms and buses, among other things.

“While we are ea­ger for our stu­dents and staff to re­turn, we must do it safely and re­spon­si­bly,” Whit­ley said.

Rich­mond Pub­lic Schools plans to sur­vey fam­i­lies this week about re­open­ing, Su­per­in­ten­dent Ja­son Kam­ras said.

Nei­ther of the district’s two op­tions — all vir­tual or a hy­brid of vir­tual learn­ing and in-per­son in­struc­tion — bring ev­ery stu­dent back at the same time. Kam­ras said school lead­ers are em­pha­siz­ing the fact that Rich­mond, which re­mains in the first re­open­ing phase along with North­ern Virginia as the rest of the state en­tered Phase Two, has been hit harder than most other lo­cal­i­ties.

“I per­son­ally have sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns about so­cially dis­tanced ed­u­ca­tion. In many ways, that is the an­tithe­sis of what a well-rounded ed­u­ca­tion is,” Kam­ras said. “As a city, we have taken a more cau­tious ap­proach, which I com­pletely sup­port. I think folks should ex­pect the same for our schools.”

Hen­rico County Pub­lic Schools has five op­tions on the ta­ble, with the for­mat ul­ti­mately de­pend­ing on the pan­demic. In a news re­lease, the school sys­tem said new safety mea­sures would be adopted for the on-cam­pus plans and that stu­dents’ learn­ing pace would be ad­justed to fill in the gaps of what they missed in the spring.

The five op­tions in­clude stu­dents re­turn­ing to cam­puses; stu­dents con­tin­u­ing re­mote learn­ing; stu­dents com­ing back to cam­puses for weeks or months at a time with stints of re­mote learn­ing; some stu­dents com­ing to school with oth­ers learn­ing re­motely on al­ter­nate days; and the same hy­brid idea, just with­out al­ter­nat­ing days.

Those sit­u­a­tions are sim­i­lar to what Ch­ester­field County schools chief Merv Daugh­erty told fam­i­lies late last month that the county school sys­tem is con­sid­er­ing.

Daugh­erty said the district is look­ing at giv­ing ev­ery stu­dent a sys­te­mis­sued lap­top or tablet next year while also giv­ing free wire­less in­ter­net or hot spots to fam­i­lies who don’t al­ready have ac­cess.

“We will con­tinue to tackle chal­lenges and take ad­van­tage of op­por­tu­ni­ties as they come our way, and we will keep you up­dated as soon as de­ci­sions are made,” he said. “We con­tinue to ap­pre­ci­ate your pa­tience as we nav­i­gate this un­charted path. To­gether, we will come through this stronger as in­di­vid­u­als and as a com­mu­nity.”

School dis­tricts in the Rich­mond area aren’t the only ones try­ing to fig­ure out re­open­ing plans.

In Rad­ford, where only six peo­ple have been in­fected by the virus ac­cord­ing to state data, Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Gra­ham hopes to have the school year start in early Au­gust, with 12 to 15 stu­dents on each school bus and in each class­room. Still, it would not be a com­plete re­open­ing.

None of the three plans on the ta­ble for Rad­ford City Pub­lic Schools brings ev­ery stu­dent back at once.

“It’s just been a gamut of sce­nar­ios,” said Gra­ham, adding that the district could add sev­eral days to its cal­en­dar to make up for lost learn­ing. “I would like stu­dents to re­turn on the day we’d set, but I know that can’t hap­pen.”

In harder-hit Fair­fax County in North­ern Virginia, which has more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any lo­cal­ity in the state, the county school sys­tem will present spe­cific de­tails on its three sce­nar­ios — where stu­dents will start the school year re­motely; where stu­dents re­turn to school with so­cial dis­tanc­ing in place; and where schools open on time, but stu­dents and staff who are un­able to re­turn will at­tend through vir­tual learn­ing — to its School Board on June 15.

“Ob­vi­ously, there are many unan­swered ques­tions right now,” said Lucy Cald­well, a spokes­woman for the district, the largest in the state.

Across the coun­try and world, school lead­ers have been creative in their re­open­ing. At a school in Mon­tana, for ex­am­ple, teach­ers are us­ing pool noo­dles to en­force 6-foot so­cial dis­tanc­ing. In Den­mark, desks are set 6 feet apart and re­cesses are stag­gered to avoid crowds.

One item not on the check­list for re­open­ing in Virginia is Stan­dards of Learn­ing test­ing, which pro­po­nents said would give the state and school sys­tems the chance to iden­tify gaps in learn­ing that are likely to grow even larger dur­ing the clo­sures with not all stu­dents hav­ing ac­cess to the in­ter­net.

The tests, nor­mally given in the spring, were can­celed be­cause of the statewide school clo­sures and, after ini­tially con­sid­er­ing the idea, the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion told school lead­ers in April that it would not have the tests upon stu­dents’ re­turn.

What will hap­pen — and how schools could look — re­mains to be seen.

Gov. Ralph Northam is ex­pected on Tues­day to ad­dress school

re­open­ing.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Hanover County em­ploy­ees worked along­side vol­un­teers at Me­chan­icsville Ele­men­tary School on April 24 to pre­pare boxes of meals for county res­i­dents. Fund­ing was pro­vided through an emer­gency COVID-19 grant.

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