By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Oct. 13 — Monday night’s meeting of the Page County School Board began much like the last one.
“I strongly urge you to pass plans to get high schoolers back in the classroom,” parent Beth Ancell said. “Step up to the plate and get our kids back in school. I know our teachers are working hard, but our kids need to be learning effectively.”
The lone speaker to address the school board on Monday echoed the sentiments of many parents across the county.
“We have a lot of families requesting that we get kids back in school,” Superintendent Wendy Gonzalez told school board members.
Despite two major revisions driven by feedback from teachers and parents, as well as garnering the full support of the school board in August — the school division’s “Return to Learn” plan and its blended model of instruction have been heavily criticized since the school year began one month ago.
“This is ridiculous,” read one letter from a parent. “We need to get these kids back in school … it’s no different than going to Walmart.”
In reality, the complex logistics of educating, feeding and transporting nearly 3,000 students ages 4 to 18 all across the learning spectrum (while still following CDC guidelines, social distancing and providing two different forms of instruction) is not exactly like “going to Walmart” — and those logistics are what continue to challenge teachers and administrators.
One such challenge is the basic need of staffing. When schools reopened on Sept. 10, splitting classrooms to ensure social distancing created a need for more teachers at the elementary level. The school system delayed hiring any additional personnel due to delayed state funding. So, high school teachers, who were instructing all of their students remotely, were asked to help out at the division’s elementary schools.
Additional staffing shortages have been created as some staff members have been quarantined after exposure to COVID-19, as well as some staff members that did not return for the school year and others who have left (or are threatening to leave) due to concerns for their own health.
The school board entered the school year knowing that they would not make any changes to its “Return to Learn” plan for at least nine weeks — and most likely, not until after the first semester. Two key reasons for that decision were first, to monitor their current plans so they would know where adjustments were needed, and secondly, because at that time there wasn’t enough money to fully fund all positions needed.
“Originally, we wanted to wait that long, but we are hearing from so many parents,” Dr. Gonzalez told the school board on Monday. “At first, we didn’t have the money — we do now… hence, why we didn’t move any sooner. We were waiting on the state to see how much Page County was getting. We have that money now from the state, so we can backfill positions to staff the high school.”
During the discussion of when to bring students back, it was noted — as it was in August and again in early September — that making massive changes, especially at the high school level, after the first nine-week period ends would leave only about 16 instructional days before the Christmas holiday. The discussion weighed making numerous changes for such a short time period as opposed to waiting until the end of the first semester — particularly at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in the region and predicted to continue rising as the weather gets colder.
“I’m not willing to risk the health of our staff and of our students to get more students back in the classroom quicker,” District 2 school board member Rolf Gubler said during the meeting.
However, the majority of school board members weighed in on the side of vocal parents who are struggling with instructional packets, technology and the mental wellbeing and overall performance of many students, especially at the high school level.
“This is a win if we get more kids back in the classroom,” said District 4 member Duane Painter.
Changes to the “Return to Learn” plan being considered would increase classroom instruction in grades 3 through 5 from two days a week to four days a week, just like students in grades K through 2 are currently doing — and elevating high school students from remote-only learning to attending in-person instruction two days a week. Principals at the two high schools asked administrators to emphasize with school board members the additional burden that puts on high school teachers in a short period of time.
“It is a big transition for our high school teachers,” Dr. Gonzalez told the school board. “While the other teachers have been [providing in-person instruction] since Sept.10, high school teachers have not.”
At the start of the meeting, Dr. Amy Painter, the District 3 representative on the school board, read a letter from the Page County Educational Association.
“We all want to return to normal,” the letter from PCEA president Lee Meadows states, “but not at a risk to students and teachers.”
The letter noted that some teachers were threatening to quit if more students were brought back too soon. It noted how teachers needed time to make such transitions, how communication with the administration needed to be improved, and how switching from “no full reopening until there is a vaccine” to “we’ll be looking at bringing back kids soon” has caused teachers added “stress and anxiety.”
The superintendent plans to present proposals for bringing more students back to the classroom at the school board’s Oct. 26 meeting. The proposals (as outlined Monday night) would call for an increase from two to four days of classroom instruction for students in grades 3 through 5 starting around Nov. 9. High school students would start in-person instruction two days a week around Nov. 16 (for A students) and Nov. 19 (for B students), using the same A/B model as lower grade levels.
The first step, however, will be determining how many families who started the school year as remote-only, want to stay that way. At the start of the year, families were told that whatever option they chose would be in place until the end of the first semester. Now, parents will be able to change their minds quicker — and the Oct. 20 deadline to respond to that survey is quickly approaching.
The results of that survey will be the first step in the school system determining the staff needed to bring more students back.
“In some cases, the room is there, the teacher is there — we have room,” Dr. Gonzalez said of some elementary and middle school classrooms. “So we can bring back some of these students with minimal impact. We want families to know that we want you back, if you want to come back.”
“We can’t do any of this rushed, but we have to start,” the superintendent added. “We need to gather the data to see how many want to come back and figure out everything we need to consider to make the first pivot.”
Prior to the discussion, school administrators reviewed the successes and challenges the division has faced in trying to equally serve both remote leaners and in-person instruction through various services such as transportation, technology and nutritional services. The school board’s discussion of bringing back more students also dove into the details of what having more students in the classroom might mean in terms of pandemic protocols.
“If there are going to be more people in the classroom, then everyone needs to wear masks,” said school board chairman Jim Grimley.
“And parents have to support it 100 percent,” added District 5 representative Jackie Sullivan-Smoot.
The superintendent noted that recommendations planned for the Oct. 26 meeting will take current COVID-19 data into consideration as well. That means if cases of the coronavirus continue to rise, bringing more students back to the classroom could be delayed further.
Among other considerations will be awaiting additional digital devices to arrive for high school students, filling staffing vacancies (with few applications), sufficient time for teachers to update Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), determining class sizes and transportation needs, and collecting survey data from families to determine the actual numbers of students who want to attend classes.
“We can’t do it any sooner,” the superintendent said, “without the data and figuring out all of the logistics.”
Dr. Gonzalez noted that accommodating all students could be even more difficult due to social distancing requirements and available space.
“If the response [to coming back] is really large,” she said, “then we may have to have a waiting list.”