A Saturday morning Zoom town hall organized by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31) focused on the topic at the forefront of many Loudoun parents’ minds: What exactly will school look like when it reopens for in-person learning?
Favola was joined by Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams, Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-34), School Board member Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian), and Leslie Sale, director of the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Policy. Scores of parents tuned in to the virtual Town Hall, with many submitting questions before or during the meeting to be answered by school leaders. As many submitted questions remained unanswered at the meeting’s end because of time constraints, there was enthusiasm by panelists for scheduling another Town Hall ahead of schools’ reopening.
Williams briefed viewers on a report recently delivered to the School Board, which envisions LCPS reopening with two days of in-person instruction and three days of distance learning weekly for most students. This follows the release of guidelines for reopening schools issued by Gov. Ralph Northam on June 9 as part of his Forward Virginia plan, and assumes that Loudoun will be on at least Phase 3 by the time the school year begins.
A limited number of students, including some students with disabilities or English Language Learners, may be accommodated for more than two days’ weekly of in-person learning, Williams said.
Williams and school leaders must consider not only classroom space, but also bus capacity in ensuring Loudoun is meeting the guidelines set out by the state. Williams said he is considering limited deviations to increase the number of students who can be accommodated in classrooms or buses. Class sizes could be increased, for example, if the six-foot social distancing measurement is measured from the center of one child’s head to the center of another child’s head, he said.
Schools staff members also are working to beef up distance learning options, to give parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children to school the option to have virtual instruction 100 percent of the time.
“We’ve learned some lessons from [distance learning] this past spring and we’re still processing that,” Williams said.
Among those lessons learned is the need for a greater structure in academic schedules; increased expectations in both synchronous and asynchronous learning; more grading of student work; required attendance; and integrating extracurricular activities.
Reaser pointed out that the draft plans so far have involved not only efforts by school system employees and School Board members, but 250 total stakeholders, including parents and representatives from the minority and special education communities. As the plans are fine tuned, more constituent feedback will be sought, she emphasized.
One idea that was quickly shot down by most parents, Williams said, was a proposal to have 100 percent in-person learning for all elementary school students, and 100 percent distance learning for middle and high school students. To accommodate the elementary students and provide adequate social distancing within classrooms, elementary students would be spread out among all of Loudoun’s schools, including its middle and high schools.
“That trial balloon didn’t make it very far off the ground,” Williams said.
Another consideration is how to provide childcare for Loudoun’s teachers and school staff, some of whom have young children themselves. One thought was to give school division employees’ children priority access to in-person learning, but that would limit the amount of students with disabilities or English language learner students that could be accommodated for more in-person learning.
“We have started the conversation with the county on whether or not they may be able to provide a limited number of childcare spots for LCPS employees,” Williams said. “We’re still in the early stages of conversation with them.”
Sale commended Williams on the thoughtfulness and effort put into the school system’s reopening plans. She also said the past few months have brought to light how important education and education infrastructure is to society.
“It’s important as we move forward to continue to keep that top of mind. The emphasis here is on how we get back to normal and in-person instruction, but we should also be thinking about things more holistically; not just about the quality of education but about mental health for students and staff,” she said.
Updates on school reopening plans can be found at lcps.org/returntoschool2020.