With two weeks left to prepare for the opening of a historically challenging school year, the Loudoun School Board and administrators are continuing to wrestle with ways to get more students into their classrooms, even if only for one or two days each week.
Loudoun schools are scheduled to open Sept. 8, with students and teachers logging in for a program of virtual learning. The 100 percent online education program was adopted after the School Board abandoned earlier plans to offer a hybrid option that would allow in-person instruction two days a week.
Earlier this month, administrators approved the first exception to that, which will allow approximately 900 students at the Monroe Advance Technology Academy to participate in a hybrid model. The move was designed to address concerns that hands-on instruction was critical for many of the MATA courses, ranging from auto service technology and culinary arts to welding and veterinary science.
During last week’s School Board meeting, members pushed for more students to have the chance to get classroom time and the latest plan includes providing nearly 2,800 students with some sort of in-person learning before the end of October.
Targeted students included those who qualify for preschool programs, special education students in the Aligned Standards of Learning and in self-contained programs, and entry-level English language learners.
Just when the other 81,000 students—or at least the half of them who elected to participate in hybrid learning during a survey in the spring—will have the opportunity to get back to the classroom isn’t known.
And their return won’t be determined by any date on a calendar.
That’s something Superintendent Eric Williams stressed as he laid out the reopening plan in more detail to community leaders, speaking to the Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 19 and the Leesburg Daybreak Rotary Club on Tuesday morning.
“We know that people want clarity,” Williams said told the Rotary Club. “We know that it is frustrating.”
Williams said the strategy is to start small and scale up when conditions—everything from the level of the virus’ community spread, to the availability of PPE and cleaning supplies, to having enough teachers available—are right.
“All along in terms of scaling up, we’re going to be looking at a variety of data,” Williams told the Chamber members last week. “First and foremost is: What is happening in terms of community transmission? As schools across the nation have started to return, some divisions with more assertive approaches with in-person learning have already started to scale back and you see that happening at the collegiate level. So, we’re starting small. We’re going to monitor the public health data and consult with local public health officials and, of course, operating within the phased guidance for Virginia schools which is issued by the governor.”
After addressing the groups of special needs students already identified, it is likely administrators next will look to get students in kindergarten, first and second grades into the classroom on a two-days-a-week hybrid schedule, as well as the students at the Academies of Engineering and Technology and the Academy of Science. Other likely groupings in the phased reopening plan are more proficient English language learners and then students in middle and high schools.
School Board members pushed to get students who were least likely to succeed with at-home, online learning into the classroom first.
But even a slow ramp up has big challenges.
Among the largest is lining up enough teachers in each specialty to return to the classroom.
In a survey earlier this summer, nearly 3,700 teachers said they preferred to participate only in online learning this fall. However as of last week, fewer than 300 instructors had filed the paperwork to qualify for formal exemptions based on factors such as personal or family health conditions.
During last week’s meeting, School Board members, Williams and his staff discussed how to best balance those teacher preferences with the classroom needs. If a large number of teachers opt to take unpaid leave rather than return to the classroom, administrators will attempt to hire certified instructors on short-term contracts. Several School Board members acknowledged that in an already tight education hiring market, gearing up a full hybrid learning program would be unlikely if all those teachers opt out of a return to school, but there was clear reluctance to “strong arm” them with threats, such as termination.
Board members also hit roadblocks when trying to set deadlines for the additional hybrid learning programs to ramp up. Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) proposed a phase-in schedule with MATA student starting hybrid learning Sept. 8, preschool students getting some in-person instruction starting Sept. 14; ESL students returning for one or two days a week by Sept. 21, and special education programs bringing students into class by Oct. 13. In the end, only the MATA and special education programs had their start dates locked in.
Administrators will return next month with proposals to begin offering hybrid preschool and ELL classes and schedules that would allow ample time to identify staffing, complete training, build bus routes and other tasks. Williams’ presentations this week showed a “by October 27” deadline.
Another push is underway to ensure students will have the internet connections they need to participate in online classes. Over the past several days, school leaders have worked to distribute new Chromebooks to students in grades K-2, completing the rollout of a program to give every student a laptop device. The school district also has acquired another 600 hotspot devices that will be issued to students without adequate connections. Those efforts build on work done when schools were suddenly shuttered in March, when the school division purchased the last 11,000 Chromebooks then available in the U.S. market and 1,000 hotspots. Still, it is expected that some students will have to set up in library or school parking lots to get an internet connection strong enough to participate in their online classes.
As parents and caregivers prepare for at least five more months of some form of at-home learning, Williams has two important messages.
First, the educational experience in the fall will be much more robust and structured than the online learning plan quickly put together last spring. “Teachers did an amazing job in the spring and we’re going to do a lot better this year,” he said.
Second, there is a focus on making progress, not expecting perfection. “Parents were holding themselves up to this sense of perfection—and I get that, these kids get one shot at an education—but parents need to recognize that they need to just do the best that they can,” Williams said. “And the same thing with teachers. Teachers sometimes beat themselves up. We need to continue to that mantra of progress not holding people to perfection.”
During the Chamber session, school principals expressed optimism and excitement for getting back to teaching students, even if only online. They said a lot of time has been spent talking with students, parents and teachers to understand what worked and what didn’t during the spring sessions. Those “empathy interviews” formed the foundation for the new lesson plans.
“The work we are doing in the fall is actually from the voices of our community, which we’re really, really excited about,” Brambleton Middle School Principal Renée Dawson said.
“What it allowed our folks to do here at the school is really look at this through the lens of the students that we’re serving and their families. And it allowed us to, I hope, enhance our offerings and grow our craft,” Cedar Run Elementary School Principal Robert Marple said.
“We want our students back in the building. I miss that interaction. That is what excites me so much,” he said. “But during this time when we are engaged in distance learning, I think we’re adding tools to our toolbelts to be more successful and meet our students’ needs. We’re going to give it our best. We’re looking forward to doing what we can to provide our students with a joyful learning opportunity each and every day.”