Some high school students will return to class March 8; seniors may get in-person graduation

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By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Feb. 26 — As the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have passed a peak and new cases continue to decline, school boards all across the country are facing increasing pressure to bring students back to the classroom, especially at the high school level. A driving factor is not only the loss of social interaction and senior year memories like the class trip and prom, but the increasing number of students that are failing or underperforming due to the ineffectiveness of remote learning.

On Monday night, the Page County School Board heard pleas from both parents and students to not only bring high school students back for in-person instruction, but to advocate for an in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021.

On Feb. 5, Governor Ralph Northam called on all K-12 school divisions across Virginia to make in-person learning options available by March 15.

“The health and safety of students, educators, school personnel, and communities continues to be our top priority,” said Governor Northam. “We know that children learn better in classrooms and that going to school is vital for their social-emotional needs and for receiving critical services like meals. It is also important for our youngest learners, students with disabilities, and those with limited access to technology who have struggled most with remote learning. By focusing on mitigation measures, we can provide our kids with safe and equitable learning environments.” 

Page County Public Schools has offered in-person learning options for middle and elementary level students for most of the year. However, high school students received less than a dozen days of in-person instruction before the holidays and have been limited since then due to the winter surge in COVID-19 cases that saw Page County’s seven-day positivity rate rise to nearly 23 percent.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Superintendent Wendy Gonzalez told school board members Monday night, noting that many school systems across the state have operated under a division-wide “remote only” learning model for most, if not all, of the current school year.

However, local school administrators shared numbers of failing and underperforming students with the school board during their last meeting.

“These numbers are staggering,” Dist. 4 school board member Duane Painter said. 

Those figures were not shared with the public, but they focused primarily on high school, where most school divisions are seeing growing learning gaps.

“Virginia’s students and their learning have been dramatically impacted due to school building closures over the last year,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane in the governor’s Feb. 5 press release. “By providing more in-person instructional opportunities, while implementing strong and consistent health mitigation measures, we can successfully support students’ academic growth and social emotional well-being. We are grateful for the divisions and schools already providing these opportunities in accordance with state guidance and look forward to working alongside others to ensure students and families have this option.” 

According to Dr. Gonzalez, the local school division aims to return high school students who need the most help back to the classroom up to four days a week by March 8.

“That’s what we’re working towards,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

The “High School Return Plan” effective Monday, March 8 has the following parameters:

  • Students who are failing more than one class.
  • Seniors will be first priority, then working down to 9th grade.

Parents have been contacted about academic problems through failure letters sent home, phone calls made by teachers and administrators, and even home visits by administrators, counselors and resource officers.

During their return to the classroom, students can expect new instruction, as well as time to make up missing assignments, and receive some remediation or one-on-one time. Synchronous learning (via livestream) will be mandated for any student who is failing classes.

Currently LHS has 60 students back in the building, while PCHS has 30. Each school is “working to get more students back,” according to a report presented to school board members.

The superintendent noted that state public health restrictions could change, depending on the course of the pandemic. On Tuesday the governor announced a loosening of public health restrictions, and hinted that those restrictions could be further relaxed in April, if the current downward pandemic trends continue.

“Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of all Virginians, hospitalization and positivity rates across the Commonwealth are the lowest they have been in nearly three months,” Governor Northam said on Wednesday. “As key health metrics show encouraging trends and we continue to ramp up our vaccination efforts, we can begin to gradually resume certain recreational activities and further reopen sectors of our economy. Even as we take steps to safely ease public health guidelines, we must all remain vigilant so we can maintain our progress—the more we stay home, mask up, and practice social distancing, the more lives we will save from this dangerous virus.” 

Page Schools will not attempt to increase middle school classroom attendance at this time for two reasons — one, the county’s middle schools are experiencing fewer problems with the learning gap created by remote learning; and two, there is no more room for additional students in the classrooms at the middle school level, if six-foot social distancing standards are left in place.

Some divisions in the state have reduced social distancing restrictions to three feet in schools to accommodate additional students. Dr. Gonazalez told the school board this week that local schools intend to continue operating under the six-foot guidelines.

The superintendent said that elementary schools in the county are currently “trying to maximize seats available.”

Even greater than the plea to bring high school students back to the classroom were the cries for an in-person graduation ceremony for seniors in May.

Currently, Page County Public Schools is planning to offer the Class of 2021 a video presentation of their graduation ceremony (taped in advance) — at a cost of $10,000 to the division for both high schools — as well as an in-person ceremony in May, with two potential options for the rain-or-shine outdoor event.

Schedule for taping the video:

  • April 26, 27, 28 – taping at LHS;
  • April 29, 20 and May 3 – taping at PCHS;
  • May 4 – other tapings (speakers, etc.) ½ day at each HS;
  • Release of video on original graduation date of May 22, 2021.

In light of the Governor’s recent loosing of restrictions on public gatherings and the anticipated further relaxation of those crowd restrictions in April, both graduations should be allowed to have up to 250 attendees. However, that figure does not allow each senior — at either high school — to have two guests.

Luray High School anticipates graduating 126 seniors, while Page County High School is projected to graduate 147.

Administrators have not yet figured out how to alleviate issues with guest tickets, but they assure parents and students alike that they intend to have an in-person ceremony, as long as state public health restrictions at the time make it possible.

“Once we know we can, we will move forward with that,” Dr. Gonzalez told school board members on Monday. “We can make it very memorable for them. It just will depend on what the state says.”

If crowd limitations create problems with attendance or guest tickets, one alternative administrators offered was to split up graduating classes into two groups (based on the first letter of their last name) and hold two separate ceremonies at each high school.

Lightning would be the only element to cancel the outdoor graduation ceremonies, according to Dr. Gonzalez.

“We are ready to roll with whatever… it’s just at this point, it’s hard to make firm plans not knowing what we will be allowed to do. So we want to be prepared either way,” Dr. Gonzalez said of booking a videographer for graduation early to secure their services.

“I just want the community to know the parameters,” the superintendent added. “We want more kids back at school, and we want to offer an in-person graduation…and we are working toward that.”

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