The Loudoun School Board on Tuesday night voted unanimously to fully implement its hybrid learning program with plans to return about half of the division’s 81,000 students to the classroom by Jan. 21.
After weeks of debate and evolving staff plans, the board endorsed plans to allow about 8,300 students in grades 3-5 and seniors at the Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering and Technology to begin hybrid classes—with two days of in-person instruction each week—starting Dec. 1.
The board also voted to begin hybrid tracks for 22,000 middle and high school students with the start of the second semester on Jan. 21. Several board members, as well as a vocal contingent of parents at board meetings, have pressed for an earlier return, but that proved to be impractical as administrators continue to juggle a list of daunting challenges—from technology needs, to space constraints, to bus schedules.
The plans were developed based on the results of parental surveys during the summer, when roughly half of the division’s students opted for 100% distance learning and half for the hybrid model that includes two days of in-class instruction and two days of online learning.
This week, families will have the opportunity to change those preferences, effective with the second semester. The new survey will reflect an evolution in the teaching approach. Instead of separate distance learning and hybrid classrooms, a “concurrent hybrid” program is being developed for secondary school students. Distance learning students and hybrid students during their at-home days would participate virtually in live classes with students in the classroom for their in-person learning days.
Starting this week, parents will be asked to affirm or change their choice of learning track during a new survey to be conducted through Nov. 20. Those decisions will be used to plan for student schedules starting in the second semester. The administration is planning a series of town hall-style meetings during the survey week to answer parents’ questions about the options. The sessions for 3-5 grades were held Wednesday and middle schoolers on Thursday. Sessions for high school students are planned Nov. 16.
Once the second semester parental selections are made, the school staff will take the next month to build the schedule for hybrid in-person days by Dec. 20 and finish the transportation routing plan—with only 13 passengers per bus—by Jan. 15, under the proposed timeline.
The School Board’s vote provides the opportunity, and the expectation, for more students to get in-person instruction. However, the availability of the hybrid program will depend on public health conditions—in individual schools and the community at large. The board at its Dec. 1 meeting plans to adopt a series of triggers—such as increasing COVID-19 testing positivity rates and wider community spread of the virus—that could send students back to online learning for as little as a few days or for a longer period.
Jeff Morse (Dulles), who was among the board members who had pressed for an earlier return to class, warned that the success of the plan depends on students, parents and staff adhering to public health protocols, including wearing face coverings and staying home when feeling ill. “This can’t be done halfway,” he said.
Tuesday night’s School Board briefing also includes information gathered from a survey of teachers leading distance learning classes.
According to the responses, the vast majority of teachers reported spending more time planning for their online classes than for conventional classes, and two thirds said they are spending at least six hours per week beyond their contract time to prepare for classes.
The survey also shows high stress levels among distance learning teachers. About 60% reported experiencing stress frequently or almost always. And only 57% of the online teachers said they were able to manage the stress in a healthy way.
At the same time, the teachers cited the need for socio-emotional support for students as their top concern, even above addressing challenges with the technology.
Loudoun Education Association President Sandy Sullivan told the School Board the organization is conducting a survey of its members to understand their experience in the current teaching environment and their views of expanded in-person learning. She said there were three words she was hearing frequently from teachers: “terrified, despondent, unsupported.”
Several School Board members said more needs to be done immediately to address teacher concerns. Among those, Beth Barts (Leesburg) said she would propose at the board’s next meeting providing 10 additional days of paid sick leave to in-person teachers to address the increased risk that they’ll be required to quarantine because of close contact with an infected person or contract the virus themselves.
As of Tuesday, 48 staff members, including 15 teachers, were under quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19. Four teachers were in insolation after testing positive for the virus.
The quarantines have led administrators to develop a “reverse distance learning” system, with teachers providing instruction from their homes to students setting in classrooms at school. In those cases, proctors are placed in the classroom to provide in-person assistance to students.