As students mask up and return to classrooms Thursday for full-time in-classroom instruction for the first time since March 2020, many across the district brace for a semblance of normalcy, though many COVID protections will still be in place.
Hovatter Elementary School in Aldie is opening its doors to students for the first time ever, and for Principal Lori Mercer, who has spent her career in Loudoun County Schools, opening a school as principal is a dream come true.
Mercer started in the position last January. Her office was in the adjacent Lightridge High School, and watched as her new school building came to fruition.
“I’d be interviewing potential teachers and look out the window and think ‘oh look at that going in the place they have a roof on the building,’ and ‘yay we have a playground now,’” Mercer said.
While the entire student body is new to Hovatter this fall, many students across the district are adjusting to new learning environments.
“The biggest challenge or transition for students depends on their previous experiences,” she said. “We have first graders who are coming in, some for the first time, so we’re really welcoming kindergarten and first graders and then other students who have not had a traditional school experience since March of 2020.”
To put students at ease, Mercer said that the district’s social-emotional learning framework will be key for teachers. Social-emotional learning includes different techniques to personalize education for students and to encourage engagement. At the elementary school level, social-emotional learning means fun conversations with teachers.
“Days begin with morning meeting time… the teacher might ask ‘would you rather be on a beach vacation, or on a mountain vacation’… or ‘would you rather be a bird or a fish?’ and each child will have the chance to share their thoughts,” Mercer said.
Social-emotional learning is just one of the methods the district is modernizing the school experience for learners. The Hovatter building boasts a number of amenities to foster interpersonal relationships and learning. In the hallways, there are common areas, where students sit on couches for lessons and project collaboration, much like you’d find in many modern office buildings. In the library, students can sit on expansive stadium seating to listen to stories. And, in the television studio, the 5th graders will produce and deliver the morning news on a greenscreen backdrop.
Mercer believes that having Lightridge High School next door will offer ample opportunity for upperclassmen to collaborate and connect with elementary school students.
Hovatter isn’t the only new school to open its doors this fall. W.O. Robey High School, an alternative high school experience, is welcoming nearly two dozen high school students for the first time. Robey is housed inside of Park View High School, but is open to all Loudoun County Public Schools students. The school aims to serve students who may have experienced impediments to their education because of various personal circumstances, such having a full-time job or being a parent. Students who complete the Robey curriculum earn a high school diploma, which Principal Jeanene Sims said sets the program apart from getting a GED.
“This is a high school diploma that students will be able to get in real time,” Sims said.
Keeping Safe from COVID
While the return to full time in-person learning indicates that life might be returning to “normal,” many COVID mitigation measures are in place to keep students safe as case numbers continue to rise across the county, attributed to the spread of the Delta Variant.
Superintendent Scott Ziegler announced on Aug. 2 that all students, teachers, and staff must wear masks unless eating or drinking, participating in athletics, or standing outside where social distancing is possible.
“We considered multiple data points, including community transmission rates, percent positivity rates, vaccination rates by age group and school-based data from the Spring,” Ziegler explained to families in a written statement.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Aug. 12 that masks would be mandated in school buildings throughout the commonwealth, reinforcing a state law that requires school districts to comply with CDC guidelines which currently include masking.
Mercer pointed out that schools will be using thermal cameras to detect fevers. Teachers will be wiping down surfaces at least three times a day to reduce transmission. With younger students, promoting hygienic practices such as handwashing and social distancing will be crucial. Elementary schools present a significant concern, as kids younger than 12 years are not yet eligible to receive a COVID vaccine.
Considerations surrounding hygiene force some teachers and staff to get inventive. Tracey Lane, a librarian at Cardinal Ridge Elementary School, said that her staff quarantines books when they’re returned before putting them back on the shelf.
“It’s hard for us to wear a mask all day long. Kids aren’t as conscious and as aware about what they’re touching,” Lane said.
As the community adjusts to school buses on the roadways and students on sidewalks once again, law enforcement agencies are beefing up their traffic patrols. The Leesburg Police Department is launching its “Traffic Safety Blitz” program, and the Sheriff’s Office will conduct enhanced patrolling of school zones.
For some, the return to school will happen online through Virtual Loudoun. For Ryan Tibbens, who has taught in the school district for fifteen years, teaching virtually seemed like an exciting challenge.
“It seemed like a cool opportunity to do something different,” Tibbens said of his new gig.
After teaching virtually last year out of necessity, Tibbens looks forward to the opportunity to innovate in his online classroom.
“Moving forward, I think we are going to see more, not less,” Tibbens said.
While there was a community-wide push to get students back in classrooms full-time during the pandemic, Tibbens observed that many students thrived while learning online.
“I think they’ve assembled a good team… I had more students than I expected say at the end of the year that online worked pretty well for them,” Tibbens said.
The school district in no longer accepting students into the virtual program, even students whose families have medical concerns.
Virtual Loudoun students will attend classes on Google Meet and will use the Schoology platform.
While it is too late to register for Virtual Loudoun, as of Monday, Virtual Virginia, the online program run by the state board of education, has a limited number of spots available.
This coming week represents the first full week of brick-and-mortar learning in the county in nearly a year and a half, as the district eyes a full year of in-person learning.