By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Sept. 30 — It was said in many different ways, but the message was crystal clear.
“What you are asking of children and parents is unreasonable,” parent Amelia King told school board members during the Citizen Comment period of Monday night’s meeting. “We want our children back in school full time.”
Members of the Page County School Board sat through a handful of submitted comments read aloud prior to nearly a dozen speakers addressing them directly on Monday to share the frustrations and challenges of remote learning — each saying they spoke for a larger contingency of parents.
“It’s not working,” parent Pamela Boyd said of in-home instruction. “Teachers are working twice as hard to make half the difference for the same pay.”
Parents heavily criticized school board members for the remote learning aspect of its blended approach, citing difficulty understanding the material or instructions sent home, difficulty with technology, long hours of working through packets, and the mental health tolls stemming from the lack of interaction with peers.
“You need to have more faith in our high schoolers,” Boyd said on Monday night. “If preschoolers can manage it, then perhaps you should have more confidence in our older students. There is a disconnect between teachers and students, and those making decisions for them.”
Page County Public Schools is offering four days of in-person instruction for its youngest students, two days in the classroom for students in grades 3 through 8, and remote-only instruction for high school students. All parents have the option of remote-only learning.
The final list of options came after at least two significant revisions to the school division’s “Return to Learn” plan between July and August that incorporated feedback from parents, teachers and staff. Page Schools delayed opening until Sept. 10.
“You are ruling with fear and without common sense,” King said. “Different communities have different needs. We need to do what’s right for us.”
School divisions across Virginia have taken a wide variety of approaches to opening for the 2020-21 school year, but nearly all include some option for remote learning — ranging from just an option, to the only option. Differences even exist among neighboring divisions, such as the Richmond area, where the coronavirus has taken the second-largest toll in Virginia.
While Hanover County brought all of its students back, Chesterfield County went almost entirely remote. Henrico County is now considering scaling back its in-person instruction and moving to a hybrid model next month. The majority of school divisions in the state have opted for a blended instructional model like the one being utilized in Page.
Dr. Wendy Gonzalez, superintendent of Page County Public Schools, said on Tuesday, that safety of both students and staff has been the top priority.
“For now, we have to consider the risk factors when we consider trying to bring more students back and/or bring students in for more days. We have to consider the mitigation strategies,” Dr. Gonzalez said in a written reply to PVN. “For example, if we lessen the social distancing to accommodate more students, then we have to increase the mask requirements. That, in turn, increases the exposure risk, meaning it would increase the number of potential people who may need to be quarantined.”
This, the superintendent pointed out, could create staffing issues among faculty that is already spread thin with additional responsibilities and new procedures.
“We have to consider the health conditions of our staff and our ability to staff schools while accommodating them, as well as our limited funds to bring in more staff,” Dr. Gonzalez stated. “We will always be following the recommendations of the medical experts with whom we collaborate from the Virginia Department of Health regularly.”
The heated opening to Monday night’s school board meeting came just a few hours after the Virginia Department of Health launched its new Pandemic Metrics dashboard to help local decision-makers deal with the current pandemic. The new data tool includes a feature called CDC School Metrics, which breaks down each Virginia localities’ COVID-19 data and compares its with CDC guideline thresholds.
There are at least eight different pandemic metrics displayed for each locality in Virginia, and the thresholds are based on “Indicators for Dynamic School Decision-Making” released by the CDC on Sept. 15. These are the first numerical guidelines that state and federal officials have put forth specifically for schools in dealing with the current pandemic.
For example, Page County currently scores in the Higher Risk category for 14-day case incidence, while it scores at the Lowest Risk for percentage of inpatient hospital beds occupied in the region and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. Page scores in the Highest Risk category for percentage of change in seven-day case incidence.
One of the key metrics considered is the 14-day positivity rate. Page County currently stands at 4 percent.
For some parents, the negative affects on learning and mental health outweigh what they see as a small health risk.
“The risk is worth the reward,” parent Ethan Hilliard said.
“It’s your responsibility,” Hilliard added, noting the difficulty that remote learning has placed on working parents.
It remains unclear however, when, or if, the current reopening plan in Page County will be altered.
“We have always felt like we need at least a month to monitor how our plans are working before we start making adjustments,” the superintendent said. “However, we are always reevaluating and looking for ways to bring more students back for a future timeline.”
Holly Coy, assistant superintendent for policy, equity and communications for the Virginia Department of Education, stated at a press conference on Monday that the guidance provided prioritizes the needs of students most impacted by closing schools and those who would most benefit most from in-person instruction. Both state and federal health officials have advised that new metrics being provided are simply “guides,” but they have recommended that any effort to bring more students back into the classroom should be done in a “phased approach.”
All final decisions on what schools may look like or how they operate still rests largely with each division, and according to Dr. Gonzalez, the local threshold for a full reopening is set high.
“For the foreseeable future, a five-day [in-person instruction] option will not happen until a vaccine or cure comes for COVID-19 and schools return to ‘normal,’” the superintendent stated Tuesday. “Additionally, we would need enough students and staff to want to take the vaccine, but school divisions cannot mandate this. This would have to come from the legislators, similar to our other required vaccinations.
“Or we would need COVID-19 to be controlled or not a threat anymore, coupled with whatever protocols that would entail for which we would have to make adjustments in order to return to ‘normal,’” Dr. Gonzalez added. “We have to consider the safety and health of our employees as well as of our students. Also, we cannot accommodate our full remote learners if we do not provide at least one day for our teachers to support them, in addition to having a day during the week for cleaning.”
If Page County Public Schools were mandated by the state government to revert to full remote learning, one major obstacle would be internet access for all students. The Page County Board of Supervisors has floated the idea of utilizing CARES Act funds to help support an effort to expand broadband service in some of the underserved areas of the county. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative is holding a teleconference with local officials across the region today to discuss the potential for such projects.
“The one thing that would help our students the most — which is an enormous and expensive undertaking for the county — would be complete internet access for all students,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “With complete internet access, we could conduct classes synchronously, wherein even the students who choose full remote could at least still be ‘in the class’ with the teacher and their classmates.
“Everyone could be on a schedule, interacting with each other and being supported at the same time. This would alleviate a lot of the stresses our families and students are experiencing now,” the superintendent added. “This would provide direct instruction and interaction for all students regardless of the location (in person or remote); this would take us from ‘remote’ to ‘virtual.’”
At the close of Monday’s meeting, school board members expressed their own thoughts about what they had heard.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that the people at the school board office aren’t talking about getting things back,” board chairman Jim Grimley said.
“We are constantly weighing the importance of instruction versus the safety of our students and our staff,” said District 2 board member Rolf Gubler, who earlier made a motion for a stricter mask policy in local schools that was voted down 5-to-1.
District 4 member Duane Painter noted the toll that not socializing has taken on high school teenagers.
“They are sitting at home feeling lonely and isolated,” Painter said. “We need to work hard to see if we can get some more things open.”
The board asked staff to consider ideas for social events aimed at that age group. Several school board members also wanted to assure parents that they had been heard.
“I want to say thank you to the 10 families that came to speak tonight. I want them to know that we do hear you,” District 3 member Dr. Amy Painter said. “We relied on central office for recommendations. We picked our poison, and we wanted to keep safety first.”
Dr. Painter spoke of her dual role as a school administrator — an elementary school principal in Shenandoah County — and as a parent of students in Page County Public Schools.
“I am one of you…,” Dr. Painter said. “And I could probably use some of those prayers in about 20 minutes when I tackle Schoology with my own children.”
Some school board members hoped that the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened the public to the true value of public education.
“I don’t think anyone in this country realized what a school system does for a child until it got shut down,” District 5 school board member Jackie Sullivan-Smoot said. “If we could snap our fingers right now [and fix everything], we would.”
At least one parent who spoke at the onset of Monday’s meeting thanked the school board and administrators for dealing with these historical challenges saying, “Please know all of your hard work and effort has not gone unnoticed.” School board members also wanted to make sure that those on the front lines — especially teachers — knew that they felt the same way.
“To the staff… We are winning,” District 4 member Duane Painter said. “It may not feel like it — but you’ve done a good job. I think we need to give them a lot of credit, and I would even label it ‘heroic’.”