Students have option of returning to class as board approves blended learning plan

Several people attended the Patrick County School Board meeting Thursday, and many addressed the board about issues they are encountering with virtual instruction. The board later approved a blended learning measure that will give parents the option of in-classroom instruction two days per week.

By Taylor Boyd

Patrick students now have the option of returning to the classroom, following a majority vote last week of the Patrick County School Board.

After impassioned pleas from several people attending the meeting, the board opted to begin the blended learning schedule on Sept. 14.

Students attending in-person classes are required to wear a mask or face shield while on the school bus and at school except when they are eating.

Parents must contact their children’s school by Sept. 4 if they wish to change their original decision of virtual or in-person instruction. Parents must also contact their child’s school to request a face shield if their child is unable to wear a mask.

Students who join the blended learning schedule will be placed into one of two groups, A or B, and will attend in-person classes two consecutive days each week. The schools will be closed on Wednesdays to allow for cleaning before the groups switch.

The Aug. 27 meeting was held to see if the health conditions in the county would allow for the school system to safely transition to go back to the blended schedule, how students and families were handling virtual learning, and how they felt about it.

The majority of those attending the meeting favored the blended learning schedule and cited technological difficulties as a primary reason for their dislike of virtual schooling.

Trish Cassell, of Meadows of Dan, said that virtual learning was not working for her family.

“I’m raising three kids, and my household can’t handle this. When I get one computer or Chromebook set up, another one goes out. My Wi-Fi can’t handle this, nobody’s can,” she said, adding that “I got to go through six or seven links to find an assignment. I can’t find the assignment. How do I expect a nine-year old to do it?”

Isaiah Nickelston, a senior at Patrick County High School, said that he wants to go back to the blended schedule because virtual learning has impacted his ability to learn.

“I have welding class. I can’t do that at a computer. How do you learn how to weld with a computer,” he asked. “There’s some things we just can’t do with technology. We have to have that physical touch to it. To learn how to do it the right way.”

“There’s one class that we can’t even get into,” said Sherry Rorrer. She added that she and other parents she has talked to would like for future school board meetings to be later in the day because many parents are unable to attend day meetings due to their work schedules.

Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Andrea Cassell said teachers and faculty at the schools have continued to hold meetings with families to help train them on how to use the technology.

“Families can still call and schedule meetings if they need help learning how to use the technology,” Cassell said.

In a message on Patrick County Public Schools Facebook page, the school system also advised families with technological issues to contact their school or complete the Student Technology Support Form on the school division’s website.

The board also voted 5-0 to start a School Reopening Committee, consisting of Gilbert, Cassell, Walter Scott, of the Smith River District, and others form the school board office. This committee will help the board learn more about what’s going on in the school and how the schools are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee plans to meet weekly until it is deemed unnecessary by the board.

Patrick County Schools Superintendent Dean Gilbert recommended continuing with the current ‘all virtual plan’ in place.

“No plan is going to be perfect,” Gilbert said. “Keeping people safe trumps everything else.”

He added that the school system now has only one teacher in quarantine because of the virus, and that the county has 37 active cases, with 11 new cases since Aug. 23.

Amy Walker of the Mayo River District made the motion to go back to the blended schedule. Shannon Harrell of the Blue Ridge District seconded the motion that was also supported by Scott and Brandon Simmons, chairman of the Patrick County School Board.

Ryan Lawson of the Peters Creek District, who voted present, later said “I felt personally that it was a better option to stay virtual right now instead of going back.” He added that he wanted, “to attempt to stay virtual a little bit longer and hopefully allow the cases to reduce further,” before having students return to the classrooms.

As of Friday, Aug. 28, data from the Virginia Department of Health suggested there are 217 cases in the county, with 45 hospitalized and 11 dead from the COVID-19 virus.

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