Loudoun Schools Continue March to 5-Day Return; Prepare to Meet Needs of ‘Broken’ Students

As students enter the final weeks of an unprecedented and unforgettable school year, Loudoun’s school administrators are preparing for a return to normal operations when the doors reopen in August.

They’re moving full speed to a return of five days of in-person learning, while tamping down expectations that virtual learning will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic in any substantial way. And they’re also pushing back on the expectation that large numbers of students will need to devote their summer to class work designed to fill in “lost learning” gaps before advancing up to the next grade in the fall. 

While early discussions of post pandemic education did include consideration of expansive summer school programs and options to allow a large portion of the student body to remain online if they preferred, those are largely off the table. 

In a statement sent to parents Tuesday, Interim Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler stressed that online learning next year would be limited to students with special medical considerations and who will receive instruction separate from their in-school peers.

“During the height of the pandemic, distance learning provided continuity of learning for our students and safety for our community. Going forward, we will build on the success of our four-day hybrid model in which the transmission of COVID between students and staff has remained low as we return students to five days of in-person instruction each week this fall,” he wrote.

For those “few families with medical concerns that would necessitate having their students continue in a distance learning model,” Ziegler said a special application process would open before month’s end. 

During last week’s School Board meeting, he said students requesting distance learning must have documentation from a doctor stating it is medically necessary. A committee will review the applications and determine each student’s ability to participate in the Distance Learning Program. Administrators are planning for no more than 400 elementary school distance learning seats and up to 2,000 in grades 6-12.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis said educators are not building next year’s teaching plans to combat learning loss.

“The term learning loss is a sort of misnomer and a little bit offensive if you think about all the work that our teachers and school leaders and families and students have been doing over the last 14 months, and particularly this last school year,” Ellis said. “Learning loss implies that students lost learning or knowledge that they once had and for the overwhelming majority of all of our students that’s simply not true.”

She told the School Board that educators will approach next year with a positive view, focused on what students learned during the year, including new communications skills and resiliency.

“Our students are not ‘broken’ in a way that we need to ‘fix’ them when they return to school,” Ellis said. 

Teachers will use “targeted instruction” to meet each student’s needs. 

“We will assess readiness with a positive mindset rather than from a deficit mindset,” she said.

School Board members wondered if there would be enough support. 

Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) said many children, including his own, have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“My daughter is broken. She doesn’t want to go to school. Every week I have to hear that she doesn’t like school anymore,” he said. “Whenever she comes and tells me she doesn’t want to go back to school it breaks my heart. As a School Board member and I’m not able to do anything, I’m in tears at home sometimes.”

He said more needs to be done to address students’ mental health.

Other members agreed. 

Altoosa Reaser (Algonkian) said she’s heard concerns from many parents.

“There is a problem beyond what we have been able to address,” she said, adding school leaders need more expertise on “what we can provide to those students who are falling through the cracks.”

Beth Barts (Leesburg) said more needs to be done to address the needs of the “whole child.”

“I hope we’re up for that. I hope we all take the summer to recharge and think about what it is going to be like for many children to come into a school building, normally hopefully, after a year and a half. It is not any one person’s responsibility; it is all our responsibility. I just want everyone to know, you’re not alone.”

Ziegler said school leaders are not trying to minimize the impact the past year has had on students but to provide the best environment for success. 

“Imagine a classroom next year where the teacher comes in with some fervency and says, ‘you guys missed the whole year. You’re so far behind. I need to catch you up. I need to catch you up. You need to take this test. You need to learn this. You need to do this and this.’ And transfers that brokenness of a lost academic year. Then that, we feel and many of the experts agree with us, would compound school anxiety, would compound feelings that students don’t want to come to school.”

“If we’re trying to fix this entire lost year in a short period of time, that’s not going to be a very enjoyable or rewarding experience for students,” Ziegler said. “When we say kids are not broken, this pandemic happened on a global scale. Every student in every school in every classroom worldwide missed that academic time.”

“We’re not going to treat them like they’ve done something wrong or they’ve come to us broken for the next year,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to make sure that learning is exciting, that school is welcoming, safe and affirming for every student, and then we’re going to meet those needs academically and were going to provide the social and emotional support students need as well.”

“When we say students are not broken, that is a mindset for educators to take into account as we move into the next year.” 

Leslee King (Broad Run) supported the approach saying that students may not be broken, but some have been injured or bruised. 

“They will make it through. This will be a distant memory. Things will get better. I like focusing on the positive,” she said.

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