POWHATAN – Given social distancing restrictions dictated in Phase II and III of a plan released by the governor about schools reopening, Powhatan County Public School officials say they do not currently see a path for a full-time return to school for all students to begin the year.

Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, sent out a letter on Friday, June 12 to parents, students. and teachers giving an update on what the school district knows about the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

On Tuesday, June 9, Governor Ralph Northam had issued guidance on reopening schools along with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

Local school staff spent the next few days of what will be a long planning process beginning the task of pouring over the 136-page Recover-Redesign-Restart document that was issued by the state. Jones had said on June 11 during a joint meeting of the school board and board of supervisors that staff is tirelessly working to examine the document and figure out how to craft the best school year possible for Powhatan students within those guidelines.

Without going into much detail, Jones talked about staff efforts to go through the guidelines and figure out how PCPS would adhere to them. Because of the complexity of the guidelines, settling on a system that works is going to be a “mammoth undertaking” and is likely to be very costly, he said.

“I haven’t slept much since this came out. I knew it was coming and it still wasn’t any better because it is going to be a logistical nightmare. It is going to be very difficult for our families when you are talking about childcare and one day you don’t need it and one day you do need it. It is going to be very difficult,” he said.

Jones pointed out that most of the state is already in Phase II and he hopes to be in Phase III by the time school starts, which will allow for at least some face-to-face instruction. But he said the state has not released a date or guidelines for a Phase IV in planning.

“A return to school as we know it isn’t on the horizon right now, at least that is not even mentioned in this document,” Jones said. “So I think at best what we are going to be seeing in the fall is some hybrid schedule where kids are in school part of the time and we are transporting half of our students to school on some schedule that we are going to work with the community to come up with and share with the school board for their review and approval. Then there will be days where you will be at home distance learning, and that may look different.”

Formulating plans

Friday’s letter gave an overview of the options PCPS is considering as they work to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff. It also acknowledged that the division is aware some students and staff may have concerns with returning to on-site, face-to-face instruction, and the school district plans to “work individually with students and staff to personalize learning as needed.”

Over the past three months, PCPS staff members have received specific feedback from teachers, parents, and students about the challenges and successes of distance learning, Jones said. Based on that feedback, as well as the need to plan for the fall, the division created a work group to devise options for the fall. The group was asked to identify and plan for instructional delivery models for the 2020-2021 school year; determine how to assess student academic progress and social-emotional needs, and create a plan for curriculum, unit, and lesson development, to include supporting teachers.

The work group reviewed a variety of resources – local, state, and national – about instructional models based on the different needs of students for re-entry into schools, he said.

After discussion of the resources, the workgroup broke into three subcommittees to look at the three main option overviews for the new school year: full-time distance learning; hybrid options, and a full-time return to school.

On Wednesday, June 24, a Return to Learning 2020-2021 Task Force, composed of teachers, students, parents, staff, daycare providers, and other community members, will meet to review guidance from government and health officials as well as the work of the PCPS workgroup cited earlier.

The school division would also like to provide them with community feedback. Visit the school division’s website, http://www.powhatan.k12.va.us/, and follow the link there to take a short survey and share your thoughts on the different options laid out in Return to Learning 2020-2021.

The work of the task force and community feedback will be presented to the school board in the form of a recommendation on how to reopen Powhatan County Public Schools safely and efficiently.

Full-time distance learning

Students who are unable to return to face-to-face instruction may opt-in to a parallel learning option that will allow for continued distance learning during the health crisis.

Based on stakeholder feedback, any future distance learning models will incorporate lessons learned from the spring, modules available from Virtual Virginia, teacher-created lessons at all levels, and additional instructional supports including direct instruction using video conferencing, such as Zoom or Google Meets.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still says full-time distance learning carries the lowest risk of COVID-19 spread.

Hybrid learning

The subcommittee working on hybrid learning formulated options that may include one or more of the following concepts.

* The first option would see the schools alternating days for face-to-face student attendance of two days per week combined with enhanced distance learning for all grade levels. The division would work with families to align attendance for their children.

* The second option involves staggering face-to-face start dates. This model would have certain grade levels return to on-site instruction using social distancing and health guidelines. Other grade levels would return to on-site instruction as guidelines change. Students off-site would participate in enhanced distance learning as described above. This model could impact families with children in multiple levels who may not return at the same time.

* The third option would incorporate distance learning with on-site facilitators for weekly coaching and/or in-school support for limited face-to-face activities such as labs, assessments, career and technical, or other hands-on activities.

Full-time return

At this time, guidance for Phase II and Phase III does not allow for an option involving full-time return to school buildings.

This option involves enhanced DL421 instruction that will include implementation and enhancement of new strategies and technology, as well as supports needed due to closure. While classified by the CDC as the riskiest of the options, the school division would still continue to follow the Virginia Department of Health’s recommended best practices.

Feasibility

During the joint meeting of the two boards, Jones pointed out that while the Recover-Redesign-Restart document has some flexibility, the requirements by the Virginia Department of Health do not. They require some “wise but difficult social distancing procedures.”

Currently, the biggest concern staff has is regarding students being 6 feet apart on a bus. Using those guidelines, they could get roughly 10 students on a bus, with a maximum of 12. Superintendents from across the state have asked for more guidance on the issue and if there is flexibility if divisions take precautions such as Plexiglas shields between seats, students wearing face shields, or taking their temperature before they get on the bus.

“All of those things are going to cost more money, and while we have the CARES Act and we have those funds available that would certainly offset it, the costs are going to be substantial,” he said.

Even sending half the students to school on a certain day, the reduced passenger allowance would mean increasing the number of school runs, Jones said. The division preliminarily looked at two high school runs to the western part of the county, and under the new guidelines, the two runs would become seven runs. That carries implications for staffing, overtime for bus drivers, and maintenance costs increasing on the buses.

The discussion that followed touched on a few efforts being made regarding these new guidelines, including educators across the state lobbying for more money and localities that were not hit as hard by COVID-19 campaigning to have waivers of some of the restrictions.

Supervisor Karin Carmack, who represents District 5, said the state’s plan seems to be unrealistic from the standpoint of both affordability and logistics. She asked if there was anything they could do to help push back.

“Being perfectly blunt, I don’t think we can afford this. How are we going to afford putting 10 kids on a school bus? It just doesn’t work,” she said.

Jones said he encouraged people to reach out to the governor’s office and department of education sharing how they feel about it.

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

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