School board votes to bring high school students back to class Nov. 16

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COVID 19 Return to Learn
Page Valley News has continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its affects on local schools.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Oct. 26 — The Page County School Board voted, 5-1, on Monday night to bring high school students back into the classroom two days a week beginning Monday, Nov. 16.

Numerous complaints from parents regarding falling grades, a lack of instruction and psychological drawbacks of high school students not attending class with their peers and their teachers prompted the third major revision to the school division’s “Return to Learn” plan.

“Overwhelmingly, the parents want their children back in school,” District 4 school board member Duane Painter said during Monday night’s meeting.

For now, there will be no changes to the current blended instruction model for other grades:

  • K-2 students attend class four days a week, with remote learning on Wednesdays while cleaning takes place at all buildings;
  • 3-8 students attend class two days a week under an AA/BB schedule, with remote learning on Wednesdays while cleaning takes place at all buildings.

The high schools will adopt the same blended model and schedule as  grades 3-8. Remote-only learning is still an option for any student at any grade level.

“We wanted to bring more students back at the other grade levels, but we did not make any revisions [to those grade levels] under the recommendation of Dr. [Colin] Green of [the Virginia Department of Health],” Dr. Wendy Gonzalez told school board members on Monday. “At this time, we need to put that plan on hold.”

The superintendent noted that the school board had discussed the possibility of increasing the number of days of in-person instruction for other grade levels at its Oct. 12 meeting, depending on current data regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Gonzalez also stated that the local school division stays in regular contact with Dr. Green, the director of the Lord Fairfax Health District. Page County is one of six jurisdictions within the health district.

Although exact figures were only made available to school board members on Monday night, the superintendent reported that a number of empty seats were filled in classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels when parents who earlier opted for remote-only learning were allowed to change their minds sooner than planned.

“We need to remember that as we add students, if they are less than six feet away from someone they must wear a mask,” the superintendent said on Monday. “If they are more than six feet away, then they can take it down.”

Citizen comments read earlier in the meeting had referenced consideration for students who may have medical conditions, or other  problems related to the use of masks. Board Chairman Jim Grimley raised the same question.

“They are in control of that,” Dr. Gonzalez said of the students. “As long as they keep their distance, they don’t have to wear a mask. But if they are in a situation where they are going to come into close contact with others, they must wear a mask, per the guidelines.”

When high school administrators polled students, 58 percent reported that they wanted to come back, while 42 percent opted to remain under the remote learning option. At both Luray and Page County high schools, freshman and sophomores showed more interest in heading back to the classroom than juniors and seniors.

Earlier staffing issues have been alleviated due to receiving state funding the local school division was waiting on, according to the superintendent.

In his dissenting vote to allow high school students to return to class two days a week, District 2 school board member Rolf Gubler said, “Some research indicates high school students can transmit [COVID-19] more readily than younger students. I just want the record to reflect that and my vote will reflect that.”

While a majority of the letters from parents read at the onset of the meeting pushed for high school students to return to class, a few noted the upcoming holidays and the potential contact with older family members — and the fact that many staff members live with elderly residents.

Temperature checks will be administered at all schools, as well as parental sign-offs on health checks. Some high school students have been coming into the commons area of the schools to use wi-fi and get extra help as needed in the first two months.

“We want people to feel safe,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “We’ve been successful with our mitigation strategies, and we’ve adjusted as needed. We recognize that it will be an adjustment for a few weeks.”

The school board also discussed the fact that the motion to bring high school students back two days a week starting Nov. 16 will only add nine instructional days before the Christmas holiday — and a total of 18 days to the first semester. 

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