Many of Loudoun’s youngest grade-school students should be headed back to class on Oct. 27.
The School Board on Tuesday night was presented with the next phase of the school division’s back-to-school plan. Members unanimously backed a proposal by Superintendent Eric Williams to allow kindergarten, first and second graders to begin hybrid learning by late October. Administrators envision third, fourth and fifth graders beginning hybrid classes by early December.
The hybrid classes will be offered to families who signed up for that option prior to the School Board’s decision in July to open the school year with 100-percent distance learning. Under that model, students will attend in-person classes two days per week and have online learning three days.
Even that may not be soon enough, as parents and students—from first graders to high school seniors—lined up Tuesday to implore division leaders to resume in-person learning as quickly as possible. They told stories of tears, frustration, boredom, and headaches from too much screen time during their first 10 days of 100-percent distance learning. They lamented the loss of socialization and connections with classmates. Some said the impacts of isolation and inherent limits of virtual learning could be worse than those threatened by COVID-19.
Williams acknowledged those concerns, but also read comments submitted by parents complimenting the extraordinary efforts of teachers to overcome the challenges of virtual learning to deliver a good learning experience for their children.
Nevertheless, Williams said his staff was working with a “strong sense of urgency” to get the hybrid learning program up and running as quickly as it can be safely implemented. Returning to schools—and keeping students in school—will still depend on tracking of a series of public health measures.
Most School Board members strongly supported expanding hybrid leaning, eschewing a suggestion to wait until next week to greenlight the K-2 phase.
Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said it might be better to vote Sept. 30, allowing time for parents and students to comment on the plan.
Beth Barts (Leesburg) said it was more important to let families and teachers know the schedule and begin planning for the changes.
“We need to let the community know this is happening. We have heard you,” she said.
Barts also said she has talked with 33 kindergarten teachers in recent weeks. “They desperately want to be in the classroom with their students,” she said.
Although voting to approve it, Denise Corbo (At Large) raised concerns about the plan, saying there weren’t enough details presented to demonstrate that in-person learning would be safe for teachers and students.
Administrators have already opened classes to students enrolled in the Monroe Advanced Technology Academy. Plans have been approved to offer in-person learning for students with disabilities, preschool and pre-kindergarten students and some English language learners starting in October. Those groups represent about 3,650 of the more than 81,000 students.
Approximately 6,900 students in grades K-2 signed up for the hybrid learning option.
Along with students in grades 3-5—another 7,300 seats—the third phase of the reopening plan could also see students at the Academy of Engineering and Technology and the Academy of Science return to in-person classes before the end of the year.
Under the plan, it is not envisioned that middle and high school students will be offered in-person learning before the second semester, which begins Jan. 21. Those schools, Williams noted, involve more complex scheduling challenges during the school day.
In preparation for the second phase of reopening, elementary schools teams have prepared schedules to simultaneously operate both distance learning and the hybrid model, while division administrators have been hashing out transportation, routing, scheduling and instruction details.
This week, administrators and school-level staff conducted school simulations—walking through students’ arrival at school, entering buildings, in-class instruction, movement in the buildings and dismissal—with the goal of finalizing strategies for safe and effective hybrid in-person learning. The simulations were conducted at elementary, middle and high schools.
“I was so impressed with the detailed nature of the thinking and planning that is occurring at the school level,” Williams said of his experience during two simulations in which he participated. While both raised unanticipated concerns, he noted the staff members were committed to finding solutions and making in-person learning work safely.
While the school assignments are being based on the students who signed up for hybrid learning during a survey of families in July, administrators are eyeing a new survey in November that would allow students to change their preference between distance learning and hybrid options.