POWHATAN – Even as Powhatan County Public Schools personnel are preparing for the huge unknowns of the 2020-2021 school year, they are trying to make it as workable as possible for students and their families.

The uncertainty surrounding what the start of the new school year will look like and the overall dissatisfaction with the options that have been given so far was a large focus of the school board’s meeting on Tuesday, June 16.

On June 9, Gov. Ralph Northam issued guidance on reopening schools along with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). In the last few weeks, staff has been analyzing the 136-page Recover-Redesign-Restart document the state sent out as guidance for school divisions on possible scenarios for reopening.

The document makes it clear that a full-time return to in-person instruction is currently not on the table for the start of the school year, according to Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent. Instead, it talks about options involving full-time distance learning or a hybrid of in-person and distance learning options.

But Jones said last week that he has already seen a softening in the language coming from the state, which has been hearing from the public and the school divisions about how unrealistic the plan is both financially and with current resources.

During that same meeting, the board instructed staff to read a 23-page document filled with emails from parents and employees, many of them unhappy with the options set out by the state. That feedback was not an anomaly, Jones told the board.

“I think the feedback we have heard tonight from parents and that you have received over the last few days is happening throughout the state,” Jones said. “I am on a call twice a week with the state superintendent and all the school superintendents from around the state, and there has been a noticeable shift in messaging from ‘this is what you have to do’ and ‘this is the guidance’ to ‘we want you to apply for waivers. We want you to be flexible.’ We have heard that more and more from Dr. (James) Lane and other representatives of state government, so that is encouraging.”

One of the speakers that night had talked about feeling “powerless” and like she doesn’t have a voice in the matter, but Jones said that is definitely not true at the local level and he doesn’t think it is true at the state level either. He encouraged parents who want to have their voices heard on the reopening of the schools to reach out to their elected officials and to the Virginia Department of Education, saying it is making a difference and continued changes could allow the division the flexibility it needs to make the new school year work.

“I think we have already seen some of the loosening of the strings. It is just a matter of how far it goes,” he said. “If we have to have social distancing 6 feet apart, students wearing masks, and those types of things that are going to require social distancing, it is going to be very difficult for us to do a five-day, full schedule for everybody. We just don’t have the classroom space, and therefore the teachers to do that.

“But we will certainly look at all those options and possibly, with the feedback from the community and communities across the commonwealth, those restrictions may be relaxed even more,” he said.

Jones pointed out that while there are many parents who want their children to return to school full-time, he has heard from families who feel uncomfortable with that and want to continue distance learning. Part of the flexibility the school division wants is in how to accommodate both of those needs.

“If we have a sizeable number that want to continue with distance learning, then that frees up more space and more opportunities for those that want face-to-face,” he said.

Community feedback

Although they had it in a written format, the school board asked staff members to read all 23 pages of comments Jones had received before the start of the meeting. There were 32 comments that covered a wide variety of topics.

Some of the topics brought up by commenters included: not furloughing teachers and aides; the lack of high-speed internet for some students to do their schoolwork; saying the state’s plan is unfeasible both financially and in regard to implementation; students being affected detrimentally without a return to normal school operations; PCPS applying for an intent to vary waiver; the small number of cases of COVID-19 in Powhatan, and the financial impact of students pulling out of school to be homeschooled or attend private school.

Still other people talked about the low risk of young people regarding COVID-19; not feeling the survey that the school division sent out had enough options; children needing the routines and socialization of school; arguing that daycares have been open without incident; the utter failure of distance learning for some families at the end of the last school year; questioning unfounded data and reasoning that led to the closure of the schools in March and the continuing limitations on divisions; questioning whether families without internet access had the opportunity to fill out the division’s survey; worrying about the safety of students who may have to stay home alone while out of school if parents have to work; eschewing the better-safe-than-sorry mentality, and needing the schools to be inclusive to all children.

Kara Taylor said, “If school is not open for all students I will be forced to apply for private school or look into homeschool. With three children in different grades I am not willing to risk their education by sending them to school two times a week, trying to teach them at home or trying to keep a schedule of who is supposed to be where.”

Speaking about the plans the division sent out, Erin Lessner argued that, attending school two days per week “is not sustainable to quality learning. Two days per week is also not equitable to every student in our county. We have many working families in this county. They will now have to take on the financial hardship of one parent quitting a job to stay home or pay for daycare costs to cover the days their child is not in school. This is unacceptable.”

Kim Ortiz said, “Learning is not a one-size-fits-all thing, as I think we have seen from the distance learning fiasco. Children need the social and emotional connections of seeing their teachers and peers. Sometimes the approval of a teacher may be the only good thing in a child’s day, or the only positive connection they have.”

Tracy Matney talked about being diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall and the hardship of her children being forced to watch her painful recovery during the distance learning period.

Kim Jackson, the director of a childcare center, talked about remaining open through the pandemic, the difficulties of maintaining social distancing, but still not having anyone become sick.

“Why has no one reached out to the people who have taken care of these kids when school closed? We are the example that kids can be together with teachers/adults and everyone is okay. These kids will have to go somewhere, just because you close, stagger, alternate days, hours, and limit bus occupancy, they will still have to be somewhere. Not every parent has the ability to work from home,” Jackson said.

Making plans

A few days after the document was sent out by the state and staff had time to examine it, PCPS sent out an initial document laying out the options the state was giving school districts. The division also sent out a survey for families and employees to weigh in on the options the state has given so far.

Even before the feedback started coming in, Powhatan employees – similar to school divisions across the state – were already expressing frustration with the restrictions. The restrictions are especially difficult to swallow for localities such as Powhatan that have not been hard hit by COVID-19.

Reopening for PCPS starts with summer school, which staff is currently planning, Jones said. The state guidelines allow for face-to-face instruction for pre-kindergarten through third grade students in Phase II of the governor’s plan. However, Powhatan has already applied for a waiver for fourth- and fifth-graders as well. The division will also offer a distance learning option.

Jones said the school division will also be applying for a waiver for some of the strict guidance being laid out for the start of the new school year, and he will update the board on how those petitions progress.

The school division is also forming a large taskforce that will look at the issue of the reopening, he said. The results of the survey the division sent out will be shared with the taskforce members. Jones said the taskforce will look at all options for the return to school.

Valarie Ayers, who represents District 3, talked about the school board members fighting for their right as elected leaders to have full discretion over the education of their students. All communities are not the same, she pointed out.

Ayers added that she wished they had a plan today for what will happen in August, “but things are still so fluid in all of this and the restrictions that we are getting and the restrictions that are being lifted.” The school board and staff are working hard on anticipating what will happen in the future, “but I think it is all going to change. I hope that we are not held to the plans that have come out already.”

Rick Cole, District 1, said he appreciates the comments and the passion of community members. He talked about the limitations they will face and that even with a return to school, “instruction is still probably not going to be where we want it to be.” He talked about the need to move forward carefully as they consider issues such as if the division is liable if they return to school and someone gets sick and how staff are being utilized and protected.

Kim Hymel, District 5, said that based on the feedback they are receiving, it is obvious to her that PCPS needs to have both in-person and distance learning options.

Chairman Joe Walters, District 4, talked about the school board and board of supervisors sending a joint letter to the governor and officials about additional funding and other issues they face.

Susan Smith, District 2, pushed to start a petition for Powhatan residents wanting to see the schools open.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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