School Board approves virtual start to 2020-21 school year

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Phased-in re-entry plan would include meeting task force-developed metrics

The Chesterfield County School Board voted Monday night to start the 2020-21 school year in a virtual learning setting, with students participating online at home while teachers teach from their classrooms. Meanwhile, Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty will create a public health task force to determine key metrics for an eventual safe in-person return to school.

“Everyone here wants schools to reopen. Everyone understands the importance of face-to-face instruction,” Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty acknowledged. “Two weeks ago we were poised to recommend a return to school in a hybrid model with two student cohorts, allowing families to choose to remain in an all-virtual setting if they elected that method of instruction for their children.

“If we know nothing else about COVID-19 we know this is a fluid situation. Guidance changes. Recommendations change. Now, within the past two week, COVID-19 numbers across Virginia and in Chesterfield County have changed. After trending downward for weeks – a move that had us prepared to reopen schools – the numbers have reversed and are increasing. The numbers of actual cases; the percentage of positive tests. Both are going up. This has given us pause.”

School division leaders and School Board members considered the benefits of in-person instruction, socialization opportunities and families returning to work, as well as the safety of staff and the ability to monitor and manage state and federal recommendations. The need for specific health-related metrics resonated with many School Board members.

“Many are suggesting to the public that schools can reopen. They have provided guidance about how to do so. The reality is, though, the public health and educational professionals are suggesting to the public schools that schools can reopen … IF. And those IFs are big,” Daugherty said.

The “ífs” that concerned school division leaders included being able to safely transport a limited number of students; the ability to enforce requirements for wearing facial coverings; the ability to serve students in classrooms given social distancing requirements; and potential costs associated with reopening schools.

“We must not lose sight of that fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic,” said School Board Vice Chair Dot Heffron, who represents the Clover Hill District. “We cannot simply wish this virus away. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. The data is widely available and clear: this pandemic is still raging, and Chesterfield is no exception.”

In lieu of an immediate return to in-person instruction, Daugherty proposed a phased-in re-entry:

  • 100 percent virtual learning to start the year
  • Level 2 special education students (adaptive curriculum) and Levels 1-4 English language learners transitioning in soon after the start of the year
  • Hybrid model rotating cohorts of students when data provides the opportunity
  • Full return to in-person instruction when data provides the opportunity

School division leaders have been working diligently to plan for a variety of instructional options in advance of the start of the 2020-21 school year. Chesterfield County Public Schools has a long-standing investment in and commitment to the infrastructure, device access, instructional resources, and sustained teacher training required for blended and online learning. Since mid-March, the Superintendent’s leadership team has acted deliberately to “future-proof” the school division so that it is able to serve families whether students are learning from within our buildings or learning from home.

“What students and families saw as we pivoted from in-person instruction to online learning in mid-March was not true virtual learning,” said School Board Chair Debbie Bailey, who represents the Dale District. “During this time we have been closed, the school division has enhanced the material supports that will be offered to students during the first nine weeks and offered numerous trainings to staff members about an effective virtual teaching program.”

The school division will provide every student with a Chromebook, expanding all students’ learning abilities beyond the traditional four walls of a classroom. In addition, buoyed by community support from local non-profits and foundations, the school division will collaborate with Comcast to offer free Internet service to families who qualify. Families living outside of Comcast’s reach may be eligible to receive a free hotspot device in order to connect online.

School division leaders will finalize virtual learning plans for presentation at the School Board’s Aug. 11 retreat.  The school division also will create a health-safety task force to help determine definitive metrics that will allow for the safe re-entry of students to in-person instruction. Board members requested weekly updates and monthly presentations.

“This Board wants normalcy back in our lives as soon as we can, but we must put the health and safety of our students, teachers and community first,” Bermuda District School Board representative Ann Coker said.

Midlothian District School Board member Kathryn Haines said that additional funding was needed for the resources necessary to safely reopen schools, noting among many items: “We need a nurse in every school. We need a robust contact tracing and testing program with quick turnaround time for staff and students. We need to increase our custodial staff and supply hand sanitizer, paper towels and other cleaning supplies for teachers.”

Matoaca District School Board member Ryan Harter cast the lone vote against a 100 percent virtual learning environment. “The reality is Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time, but we can’t stop living,” he said. “We need to find the safest way to continue and return some sense of normalcy. Our children depend on us to do this.”

Watch the School Board meeting here:

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