Schools in Virginia begin to open as West Virginia prepares

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By Bobby Bordelon

Featuring reporting by Aila Boyd, Shawn Nowlin, Heather Bell, Heather Clower,
Some local students in Virginia have officially returned to classrooms as West Virginia gears up for a September 8 starting day for classes.

In Botetourt County, planning for the return to class has been in the works since March, with ample discussion around how best to come back, and plans solidified on August 13. The new precautions include self-screening questions before reporting to school and on-site temperature checks.

Superintendent Jonathan Russ, in an emailed statement to the Fincastle Herald, explained he is “extremely proud of the smooth opening at all Botetourt County Schools today. Our principals and teachers have worked so hard for this day and it was evident as I visited schools. Entries into schools went very well. Students were cooperative and parents were patient. Our teachers were rock stars today!”

Dr. Lisa Taylor, principal of James River High School, also expressed her gratefulness to the employees of the school for their role in keeping everyone safe.

“It was a great first day back! It was so beautiful to see the students, and I know they were happy to see each other, as well. I want to thank our custodians, support staff, and teachers who have worked so hard to prepare for our students’ return. Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we had a very smooth first day, and we look forward to the rest of the school year.”

A return to class also took place for students at Roanoke College – 500 students have already returned to campus ahead of the entire student body on August 29 and September 5. As students sought out their new living spaces, face masks were worn and social distancing guidelines were emphasized. In addition, welcome bags were handed out, including Roanoke College masks, hand sanitizer, and more.

“We will forever remember this incoming class. They have passed their first college test just by persevering through their unique college selection process,” said Dr. Brenda Poggendorf, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid. “They are courageous with a sense of adventure. We heartily welcome them to the Roanoke College community and look forward to all they bring.”

Although this first day was celebrated in Botetourt and Roanoke Counties, the possibility of closure remains. For the city of Radford, this has already taken place, with the schools going to all virtual learning for the next two weeks. RCS Superintendent Robert Graham said the decision was due to a “social gathering” involving students, parents, and school staff.

“Radford City Public Schools has become aware of a recent, close social gathering in the community involving individuals, including students, staff and parents, who appear to have not been practicing public health recommendations of physical distancing and face coverings,” said Graham in a recorded announcement. “Out of an abundance of caution, concern for the safety and well-being of our school community, and upon guidance from the New River Valley Health Department, RCPS is transitioning from the hybrid model to a full virtual model for all students PK-12 for the next two weeks. RCPS is scheduled to reopen to in-person learning on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.”

Some parents in Tucker County, WV, pulled their children out of the process all together before the school year begins – as of Wednesday, August 26, approximately 35 students, consisting most of middle and high school students, have applied for the virtual-only option. Opting out of in-person classes, this would allow the students to remain physically distanced from all of their classmates. This option is also relatively easy to reverse – homeschool students will be allowed to re-enter the public school system at any time during the year, with minimal exceptions.

“The only ones that we will not re-enter are probably transfer students who have then decided to homeschool because we’re not allowing any transfer requests to come through, for out of town transfers, past that June 30 deadline because we don’t want to overcrowd our classrooms,” Lambert explained.

The possibility massively increased home schooling also raised a question about school funding at one Tucker County Board of Education meeting.

“With all of these students going on homeschooling, is the state going to take that into allowance next year for our funding or will we be cut that much in funding?” asked Board President Tim Turner. Superintendent Alicia Lambert responded that is something that has not been discussed at this time.

It was also noted at the board meeting that, after speaking with several families, it became evident that most desire remote learning with Tucker County teachers, though unless Governor Jim Justice mandates this, it is not something that can be offered universally.

In Calhoun County, WV, the first potential COVID-19 exposure came before the school year began. Although not yet confirmed positive, a family member of an athlete is experiencing symptoms, and the school is taking precautions against potential exposure.

“In an effort to be transparent with the community and also respect the privacy of our students, we want to inform you that Calhoun County Schools has been informed by Mid-Ohio Valley Health Deptment that the family of one of our athletes has symptoms of COVID-19,” wrote Superintendent Kelli Whytsell. “Parents of the involved sport are being contacted by school administrators and nurse Trudi (Anderson) for what additional steps they will need to take. We continue to do the COVID-19 screeners, take temperatures, and sanitize before and after every practice. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the athlete at this time. We are a close school family and will continue to provide whatever assistance we can safely provide to them during this time. Thank you for your support of Calhoun County Schools, our students, and the school community. Together we can get through these challenging times by continuing to support each other.”

Despite the victories and the setbacks, the opportunities presented by the COVID-19 upheaval are also ripe for exploring.

After a back and forth with the state on if marching bands would be allowed to perform at football games this year, Greenbrier East High School Band Director Jim Allder spoke about his enthusiasm for tackling this new problem and the possibilities of making something totally new. After holding several brainstorming sessions with the marching band members, a number of ideas quickly emerged, such using new microphones to record studio-quality audio of the band staples and potential video projects.

“We’re not limited!,” exclaimed Allder. “Guys, open your mind and think outside the box. We’re creative people, we want people to see our craft. … I think in the marching band, we are creative people and we are problem solvers. I would encourage all of us to take these opportunities to see not how we can cram what we used to do in the same box we used to do it in but look and see what new opportunities might be out there and look outside that box.”