While ‘vaccine’ statement stands, superintendent says more students may be coming back to school soon

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Page Valley News will have continuing coverage of the Coronavirus' impact on Page County.
Page Valley News will have continuing coverage of the Coronavirus' impact on Page County.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Oct. 1 — Following a story published by Page Valley News on Wednesday morning, the central office of Page County Public Schools has been inundated with phone calls and messages over the superintendent’s comments about a full reopening of schools for five-day, in-person instruction.

“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,’” Dr. Wendy Gonzalez stated to PVN on 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.”

This resembles similar explanations put forth by health officials across the nation with regard to reopening businesses at full capacity, waiving all indoor requirements for wearing masks and social distancing, and the return of large public events. And despite the many complaints the school division has received, Dr. Gonzalez says the statement still stands. 

The superintendent believes that fully reopening schools and going back to “normal” cannot happen until the current pandemic is no longer a pandemic.

“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 said on Tuesday.

However, on Thursday Dr. Gonzales contacted PVN to clarify her overall remarks and provide additional details. The superintendent said that while a full reopening is not in the foreseeable future, a plan that phases in bringing more students back to the classroom is already in the works.

“Within the next couple of weeks, Page County Public Schools will be announcing plans for providing more in-person instruction for our students in grades 3 through 12,” Dr. Gonzalez said on Thursday. “Students in grades 3 through 8 will soon have the opportunity for four days a week in-person experiences; students in grades 9 through 12 will return for two days a week. We hope to begin the phasing-in process around the middle of October and it will continue through November.”

The school division’s “Return to Learn” plan was revised in August after its initial presentation in July to allow the youngest students four days of classroom instruction instead of just two after receiving feedback from parents and teachers. The “phasing-in” process of bringing more students back to school over the next two months will also include additional options for parents that were not allowed in the original plan.

“Families who opted for full time remote learning but would like to switch to the hybrid option will have the opportunity to apply for the change during the different phases instead of waiting for the end of the semester,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

The superintendent added that the new plans aren’t really new.

“From the beginning, we have been continually monitoring the situations and planning for the return of more students,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “However, first and foremost, we had to be sure that our health and safety mitigation strategies would work adequately with both our staff and students. Second, we have been limited with our ability to open more classrooms/schools due to our ability to adequately staff them. As an employer, we had the responsibility to consider the health and welfare of our employees and accommodate them where we could.”

Bringing back more students will mean staffing issues, as classes are split to maintain social distancing. That in turn, could also create funding issues.

“We have been facing significant funding decreases due to lower sales taxes, as well as basic aid [state] funding that is calculated on enrollment numbers,” the superintendent said Thursday. “Due to our fiscal responsibilities to operate within a balanced budget, we did not fill some positions, nor have we been able to hire more staff to accommodate the creation of multiple, smaller class sizes.”

A report presented Monday night by assistant superintendent Eric Benson showed that the school division currently has about 110 less students enrolled than what was budgeted for prior to COVID-19. Those students have either moved out of the area or chosen other alternatives, such as home schooling, online learning from an outside source, or enrolling in private schools in the region.

Since much of state funding is tied directly to enrollment, the student deficit could reduce the Commonwealth’s contribution to Page County schools by $641,520, according to an estimate in Benson’s report.

“The General Assembly has been working to pass budgets to help school divisions with our funding challenges resulting from the pandemic,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “School divisions are also awaiting word from the Virginia Department of Education for possible financial help too, while we await funding the Commonwealth.”

The problems of lower enrollment and less funding is being felt in many school divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Loudoun County has seen a 5 percent drop in its enrollment — its first decline in decades — which might mean millions of dollars in reduced state funding.

School divisions across the state are widely varied in both their starting approach to the 2020-21 school year, and how they have adjusted since the first day of school. However, one common theme is seen in all regions — constant adjustments to constant change.

As spikes in cases of COVID-19 have been seen in various parts of the state, some school systems are considering scaling back classroom instruction, like Henrico County; while others, like Norfolk City Schools, are considering ramping up in-person instruction. Many school divisions in Virginia opted for a blended instructional model, with any potential changes being delayed until after the first nine-week period.

Taking a look at this morning’s headlines from across Virginia illustrates just how divided the issue remains, as both parents and administrators look for a better way.

  • “Other cities are bringing kids back to class. Norfolk parents want to know: What about us?” ~ Virginian-Pilot The article notes that while schools in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach welcomed students back to school buildings, Norfolk City Schools voted 6-1 this summer to start virtually for the first nine weeks.
  • “As local school divisions begin second month of classes, some see increase in COVID-19 cases” ~ Roanoke Times The article notes that Roanoke County Schools have seen 20 cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 24, with 16 reported in the last two weeks. In the City of Roanoke, 15 staff members at schools and 22 students have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since Aug. 31.

• “Roanoke Valley organizations try to fill child care gap as students remain out of the classroom” ~ Roanoke Times

  • “Isle of Wight planning for in-person learning for all grades by end of October” ~ Daily Press
  • “Virus cases among children have risen slightly in Fredericksburg region” ~ Free Lance-Star

• “New school metrics: Danville, nearby area at high risk for COVID-19 transmission” ~ Danville Register & Bee

As Page County schools move forward with plans to bring more students back to the classroom over the next two months, the remote-only option will remain.

“As families are still afforded the opportunity to participate in remote learning full time, we will continue to use Wednesdays as remote learning for all students so that our teachers (who are also working with students in person) have the time needed to adequately plan for and reach out to our remote learners,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “Wednesdays also provide an additional day for deeper cleaning which is an important part of our mitigation strategies.”

The superintendent intends to present plans for phasing-in more in-person instruction at the next meeting of the Page County School Board on Monday, Oct. 12. 

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