During a five-hour work session Tuesday night, the School Board took a detailed walk through the planning concepts for a new school year in which students could be asked to work from home most of the week.
Administrators and board members said they hope for a return to normal classroom operations next fall, but public health guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19 makes that an unlikely goal at this point.
Planning now is focused on a program that would bring students to school only two days a week, with a beefed up—and more productive—distance learning program.
Interest in the details of how that would work is high, with more than 400 teachers and parents having watched the webcast of the School Board’s virtual work session Tuesday night.
The structure of the schedule, two days in class and three days at home, is largely dictated by requirements for physical distancing in classrooms. If desks are spread apart to meet the guidelines, there will be room for only 10 or 17 students in a room at a time.
Superintendent Eric Williams said it still isn’t clear whether the school capacity will accommodate a two-day-a-week schedule. A survey to be sent this week may shed some light on that question, as parents are expected to be offered an option to keep their kids at home next year for fully online instruction. While that option might free up classroom space, there might not be enough teachers to support that program—teachers instructing in-person can’t also teach fully online students.
School Board members acknowledged the scale of work that has been conducted by administrators and 27 focus groups with 245 participants over the past month to refine the plan, but many questions have yet to be answered.
“I hate the ambiguity that we’ve had over these weeks and I hate the ambiguity ahead of us. Wouldn’t it be nice to have had this conversation a month ago? Yes, but it would not have been possible,” Williams said, noting that the state Board of Education just released its reopening guidelines last week.
Under the concept presented Tuesday, most students would go to school either on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays for in-person instruction. On their off days, they would have at-home assignments with a daily online check-in with a teacher. Provisions are proposed to allow special education and English learners to go to class more frequently because of the challenges they face with distance learning.
Compared with the distance learning program quickly rolled out after schools closed in March in response to the pandemic, students next year would have to meet higher standards. The online coursework will have greater structure and a more consistent schedule. There will be more live interactive instruction. And most notably, the work will be graded and participation mandatory—two elements not included previously.
School Board members had plenty of concerns, from what happens if teachers fall ill, to how effectively complex high school courses could be taught if students only get one day a week in person with the instructor. Concerns over how students would complete dual enrollment courses or safely participate in activities like band also were among the issues they raised.
“I just can’t envision school this way. I don’t think kids learn this way,” Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian) said at one point, adding that she wasn’t being critical of the proposal, but pessimistic of the outcome.
“It isn’t the best way to provide education. We all know that,” said Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), noting that all board members share a preference for 100-percent in-person learning.
“I’m the eternal optimist,” said Leslee King (Broad Run). “This is a gargantuan, humungous thing to tackle and I think the staff is doing a wonderful job trying to think of everything.”
The School Board has one more meeting on its schedule, June 23, before its planned summer break, but it’s unlikely they’ll take that break.
Williams has asked the board to endorse the framework of the proposed concept either next week or at a special meeting June 30, when the results of this week’s parent and teacher surveys should be available. While it was not clear Tuesday that a majority would formally back the plan, several members suggested the board reconvene in July or early August to review the operational details.