By Bobby Bordelon
Reporting by Debbie Hall, Sarah Richardson, Matt de Simone, Aila Boyd, Brian Hoffman
Since closing in-person classes for the last academic school year, boards of education across the country are trying to find a way to prevent the mass spread of COVID-19 before students return to class. Although progress on these plans kicked off during the summer, several big things have changed, such as the delay of fall sports in Virginia, the governor-set opening time table in West Virginia, positive COVID-19 cases, and more.
Even as the boards confirm plans, revise plans, set new guidelines, and open up remote learning opportunities, Patrick County, VA, has already seen its first three confirmed COVID-19 cases inside of the Patrick County Schools community. Due to health and privacy laws, Superintendent Dean Gilbert declined to provide any addition information, such as the positions and potential exposure, but schools are still currently set to open on August 11.
The Patrick County School Board approved a hybrid plan to reopen school after a three hour public hearing on July 21, hearing from parents, teachers, school administrators, and more.
“This is probably one of the most important decisions any board has ever had to make in the history of this county,” Brandon Simmons, board chairman, said before the proposal was approved in a majority vote.
The hybrid plan gives parents the ability to choose between two options. Under the first option, students will be divided into two groups, with those assigned to the A group attending classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, with remote learning used the rest of the week. Students assigned to the B group will attend in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Virtual, or remote learning will be used by those students Mondays through Wednesdays. Parents also may opt for a second, virtual only option which offers only remote classes. School buildings will be closed on Wednesdays for intensive cleaning and disinfecting, and to allow teachers to work with students attending virtual classes.
Although the safety of students is a top priority, one concern is their ability to act as an asymptomatic carriers – many children are cared for by their grandparents and other family members who are high risk. Speaking before the Patrick County board of education’s decision, one speaker highlighted the potential for COVID-19 spread – the student’s grandparents have agreed to watch the child while school is not in session. The speaker said her mother “says that she would rather take the chance” to help ensure the student is successful in school. This is in spite of the grandmother’s autoimmune disorder and the grandfather’s COPD.
As school boards make these decisions, one common refrain is how flexible the schools will have to be in order to keep students, and their caregivers safe.
“I think that we all need to keep in mind that one of the most important statements in this plan is the fact that this information is subject to change as additional information in the spread of COVID-19 becomes available,” said Greenbrier County, WV, Superintendent Jeff Bryant. “Even though we have a plan here today and the board has worked fervently, and the staff has worked fervently, there are going to be changes, and they are going to be daily.”
On Friday, July 31, the Greenbrier County Board of Education passed their reopening plans – Greenbrier County Schools will serve students through two models for instruction based on the metrics at the county and state level. Decisions about offering on-campus school or allowing for 50 percent occupancy of buildings will be based upon:
• the daily percent positive COVID lab test rate for the state.
• availability of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
• availability of adequate staffing.
• student attendance rates.
• numbers of COVID-like cases in Greenbrier County will also impact the decision-making process.
These guidelines will determine if schools comes to plan A, B, or C for learning;
• Plan A includes all schools staggered start by grade or remote learning
• Plan B includes either all schools operating at 50% capacity with modified school day or remote learning.
• Plan C consists of remote learning for all.
Another top priority for the safe return is face masks; Bryant noted, “Our recommendation is we stay with a requirement for face masks for all employees and for students, but in the event there is medical documentation stating otherwise, then a face shield will be permissible. We are also providing a face shield to all employees who want another, extra level of protection.”
“Staff members will be required to wear a face mask while in the school building,” states the re-entry plan. “It will be required outside if six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. Disregard of this mandate will result in disciplinary action. If a student refuses to wear the required face mask and does not have medical documentation, the building administrator will contact the student’s parents/guardians about enrolling the student in the remote learning option.”
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice set new guidelines for reopening schools, such as a new start date. As a result, the Greenbier County Board of Education passed a newly revised calendar, taking the new timeline into account.
“Everybody had a lot of input to this calendar,” Bryant explained. “As you know, the governor mandated that schools would start September 8, so we had to adjust the calendar. He asked and requested that the last day of school be June 1st. With that tall task, Nancy [Hanna] took the school calendar [and had to create] 180 instructional days and 200 days for our employees.”
Several adjustments to the previous few years calendar were also noted, including the requirement that incremental weather days, also known as snow days, would not longer be subjected to the same extended school-year guidelines, but could be considered remote learning days, and a new type of instructional day.
“The [remote learning] NT days are new, those are non-traditional instruction,” Hanna said. “They are basically remote learning days and they do count as instructional and employment days.”
In addition to passing, revising, and reconsidering the plan for reopening, Botetourt County is seeing big changes, such as the new Superintendent, Jonathan D. Russ, and the construction of the new Colonial Elementary School in Blue Ridge.
Russ stressed that it’s a difficult time right now to be a principal, central office administrator, parent, and student.
“This pandemic is a tough time for all of us. It’s going to take all of us to get through it,” said Russ. “The unfortunate part is that it’s going to take away from other components that we would have been focusing on in pre-COVID-19 times. … Stability is what I want for the division. There have been a lot of changes in leadership, but I think stability is very important. What impresses me the most is with all the changes that have occurred is how good the division is still functioning. That says a lot about the leadership both in the buildings and at central office.”
Previously, Botetourt County canceled fall sports, an action that would soon be repeated for schools across Virginia.
“What everyone expected is now official,” wrote Sports Editor Brian Hoffman. “There will be no fall high school sports this year, at least not in the fall.”
The Virginia High School League Executive Committee, meeting in a special session Monday morning, voted 34-1 to move forward with Model 3 in its re-opening of sports and activities for the 2020-21 school year. Model 3 delays all VHSL sports and activities until December 14 and will adopt the Condensed Interscholastic Plan.
First winter sports, such as basketball, gymnastics, indoor track, swimming and wrestling, will take place, practices scheduled to begin on December 14 and the first games on December 28. This will be followed by fall sports – games will be played from March 1 through May 1, including football, volleyball, golf, cross country, cheerleading and field hockey. Spring sports will take place last, beginning April 12 and running through June 26. This will include baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and track and field.
“For what we know now, I think this is the best we can do,” said Lord Botetourt athletic director Chuck Pound. “Things could change before December.”
Dr. Molly O’Dell, Director of Communicable Disease for the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, writing in a local column, explained why new COVID-19 data could be of concern.
“We have seen a shift in disease demographics,” explained O’Dell. “In March, our positive cases were primarily tied to travel – individuals coming home from domestic or international travel, or individuals traveling to Roanoke and spreading the disease. In the beginning, most cases were in the 50-60-year-old range. We initially had slow gradual growth in our cases, as the stay at home order was already in place when we got our first case. However, over time the pace started to increase with specific outbreaks in places where social distancing was difficult, such as congregate living facilities and worksites. As the phased reopening started and with more social and business interactions, we are seeing an increase in outbreaks, clusters, and cases…. Now, many of our positive cases are from gatherings and events, summer travel, and workplaces. Additionally, the average age has decreased dramatically and most cases are in the 18- to 40-year-old range. As the cases have increased, so has the ability to look at the data in more detail.”
The ever-evolving guidelines for schools reflect how the scientific community as a whole has reacted to COVID – changing how we behave based on the observed evidence on how the disease spreads.
“As our understanding of the disease evolved, so did the direction from our public health experts about ways to protect ourselves,” O’Dell wrote. “… Initially we stopped giving handshakes and hugs, washed our hands vigorously and often, and were instructed not to touch our faces. Next, we were advised to avoid large gatherings, and then to stay at home or practice social/physical distancing by staying six feet away from others in any public setting. Lastly, the science changed our understanding of asymptomatic disease spread, and it is now recommended to wear cloth face coverings in public.”
As the reopening date approaches, boards of education continue to monitor their local cases and look to the states and the federal government for guidance on how best to keep students, and their caregivers, safe.
“While it is difficult to guess the future, we know that there are areas of concern and challenges ahead of us. As we continue to reopen, and schools and colleges open in the fall in some capacity, we know that more people gathering in larger groups indoors will result in more cases,” O’Dell said. “There is still work to be done to ensure that everyone has a better understanding of the virus and how to stay safe. … As a community, we need to continue working together and follow safety precautions to stop the spread of COVID.”
For those curious about more COVID-19 school stories, including back-to-school plans and graduations, check out more reporting from Mountain Media News journalists: