During another meeting marked by protests from frustrated parents and students pushing for a return to the classroom, an effort to accelerate Superintendent Eric Williams’ schedule to expand in-person learning narrowly failed to gain support from a School Board majority Tuesday night.
Tuesday was the first day of in-person hybrid learning for special education students, and students up to second grade are expected to begin hybrid learning with two days of in-person instruction weekly on Oct. 27.
During the School Board meeting, administrators were presented with early ideas for the next stage of the return-to-school plan, allowing hybrid classes for third through fifth graders and seniors at the Academies of Loudoun by Dec. 1, and for middle and high school students by the start of the second semester in January. At that point hybrid learning would be available to all 41,111 students who signed up for that option last summer, before the School Board opted to begin the year with a 100% distance learning program instead.
Parents gathered outside the School Administration Building to protest the distance learning program and push school leaders to open classes full time. More than 100 people signed up to address the board. During speeches limited to 30 seconds each, parents and students were at times tearful and more frequently angry over their frustration with current operations. They complained about spending too much time online for class, and then being piled up with too much homework. Straight-A students said they were struggling to keep up. They talked about mental anguish and mental collapse from frustration, pressure and isolation.
A move by Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) and Jeffrey E. Morse (Dulles) to get middle and high school students into hybrid learning by Dec. 1, instead of waiting until Jan. 21, failed, with only Leslee King (Broad Run) and John Beatty (Catoctin) supporting their push to accelerate the staff-proposed timeline.
Serotkin made the motion to accelerate the timeline. He said he reluctantly supported William’s proposal to start the year with distance learning, but now sees other school divisions across the country and around the world successfully running classrooms. He said Loudoun’s school leaders to tackle the challenge.
Morse has increasingly expressed frustration with the slow pace of administrators, and on Tuesday night even proposed his own matrix of health measurements that could be used to monitor the spread of the virus in schools and classrooms and guide mitigation efforts. He said distance learning was failing many students.
“They are flunking. We are responsible,” he said. “The vast majority we’re hearing from constituents is it is not working.”
Serotkin and Morse both said it would be better to begin working out the kinks of hybrid learning as quickly as possible, rather than wait until January and potentially carry disruptions into the second semester.
Other School Board members were worried about imposing another change to the learning environment at a time when families have said they are finally settling into the routine. Administrators raised concerns about not having needed equipment in place to support livestreaming classes, a function planned to serve both distance learning and hybrid students in the secondary grades. And some School Board members also noted the concern among families who selected the distances learning model about the switch from dedicated synchronous learning sessions to livestream classroom viewing that is now envisioned at the middle and high school levels.
“We hear loud and clear that the current approach isn’t working for many people,” Williams said, but he also highlighted the huge efforts of teachers and administrators to make the current system work as best as possible.
The majority of members said they weren’t convinced that an effective transition to hybrid learning for middle and high school students could be accomplished by a Dec. 1 deadline or that the changes should be made so late in the first semester.
The School Board did vote unanimously to move secondary students from a AABB scheduled to an ABAB schedule, a move designed to better help students process information and complete assignments between classes. Administrators had planned to consider that shift starting with the second semester, but, under the School Board action proposed by Beth Barts (Leesburg), that will begin Nov. 9.