New Kent Charles City Chronicle

News for New Kent County and Charles City County, Virginia | August 14, 2020

New Kent School Board members receive glimpse of “Return to Learn” plan

By Andre Jones | July 14, 2020 10:12 am

The struggle to make the decision on when businesses and environments are safe to reopen continues to be a nonstop discussion with the presence of COVID-19. That commentary carried on at New Kent School Board’s Monday night work session.

New Kent Superintendent of Schools Brian Nichols presented the district’s first “Return to Learn” plan at the July 13 meeting. And while measures are being taken by the school for a safe return, uncertainty continues to cloud any clear path of direction.

“Our guidance continues to shift based on CDC (Center of Disease Control) and VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) guidelines,” Nichols said. “As they shift, our plans will continue to shift as well.”

Along with Director of Curriculum and Development Byron Bishop, Nichols presented the school board a variation of phases for student learning to at least begin the 2020-21 school year. The PowerPoint presentation focused on the levels of risk, complexity of finance, school capacity, Internet access, and community feedback when developing the plan.

In synchronization with the state’s reopening, schools are currently in Phase Three, indicating that students can receive in-person instruction with physical distancing. Recommendations for alternative schedules combined with a blend of in-person and remote learning are also part of Phase Three.

Nichols commented that a shift in the environment could be either negative or positive for schools. A negative shift could revert the state back into Phase Two, meaning all students would be at home, while a shift beyond Phase 3 could see things return to “normal” learning conditions.

“We need to develop a plan to be able to go back and forth to accommodate families,” the superintendent said. “Our plan focuses on a safe learning environment for students and teachers, maximum school instruction with minimum risks, ensuring that the schools continue to received guidelines [access to Internet, social-emotional], and a support staff with professional learning, communication with families, and focus on equity to ensure students receive the best learning experience.”

Nichols added that guidelines continue to shift on a daily basis. He specifically pointed to a recent determination made by the American Pediatrics Organization and the Virginia Department of Education that reduces social distancing from six feet to three feet. The reduction of distance would require mandatory wearing of face masks. The impact of this change can result in more students in the classroom and on the bus.

“If we followed social distancing for bus routes, we’d only get seven kids on a bus,” the superintendent said as he pointed to a slide to demonstrate the difficulties. “That’s not feasible for any school division.”

The school system has seen a glimpse of what social distancing could look like thanks to summer school. But what the school hasn’t seen is the impact financially the district will take.

“Right now, we are going to lose five percent of our budget,” said Director of Finance Haynie Morgheim.

That five percent budget hit is the equivalent of $1.8 million. Areas affected by the budget include Internet access, personal protection equipment (PPE’s), transportation and staffing.”

The school system conducted two surveys for feedback referencing Internet access and parent preferences when it comes to reopening schools for face-to-face learning.

According to the Internet survey consisting of responses from 1,400 people, approximately 93 percent have some sort of access to the Internet. Of the 93 percent, about half of them has no lagging, while two-thirds have unlimited access. However, seven percent of the respondents have no type of Internet access, that make learning virtually difficult for them.

When asked about preferences to see students back in the buildings, nearly 2,300 people responded to the question, with 87 percent wanting a face-to-face hybrid and 13 percent preferring an all virtual learning experience. There was no option for an all-classroom experience on the survey, but respondents mentioned it in the additional comments portion of the survey.

In an interesting response regarding transportation, only 53 percent of surveyors said they would need assistance for both morning and afternoon transportation. Ironically, 35 percent responded that no school transportation would be necessary.

Answers regarding childcare also provided somewhat of a shock to some school board members. According to the survey, 61 percent of households would not need additional childcare services (personal hiring, daycare centers, after-school programs). Twenty-two percent or respondents said they would need childcare, while an additional 17 percent said it was a probability.

School board members began to debate their viewpoints surrounding the options for students to return to campus grounds.

“Childcare facilities are full with a waiting list,” said District 1 school bard representative Wayne Meade. “If we go down the road of hybrid planning, these childcare facilities are not equipped.

“Owners of the facility don’t want to monitor a child for five hours a day,” he continued, commenting on how it is recommended that students are watched when doing schoolwork. “We would have to hire paraprofessionals on those days off. A nine-year old kid would still have to go somewhere to do their work on their days from school. Staying at home is not an option for them.”

The District 1 representative continued, commenting that many of the COVID-19 cases do not affect the students of the school.

“Look at the date of the people who we service,” Meade continued. “We know statistically that we’re okay for the population we serve, from Pre-K [prekindergarten] to 18 years old. We need to reassure the parents that this is a safe environment when we make those decisions.”

District 5 school board representative and chairwoman Gail Hardinge commented that she understands Meade’s viewpoint, but the scope is broader than just the school buildings.

“I hear you and I don’t disagree with you, but we have to look at the context,” she said. “The virus is spread by large groups that get together.

“We did what we were supposed to do this Spring by closing,” Hardinge continued. “We don’t have the same populations such as Virginia Beach, but those large groups are meeting on a regular basis.”

Meade rebutted, speaking about how groups such as travel baseball teams have been competing and traveling out of state. However, District 3 representative Andrea Staskiel interjected with comments about the transmission.

“What if Johnny and Timmy played together at the same daycare and Johnny had it?” Staskiel said. “Johnny could pass it to Timmy who could pass it to his grandmother.”

After further discussion among board members, Nichols recommended a hybrid plan with 50 percent of the learning conducted in home environments. Six feet of social distancing would be in place, as well as health screenings, reduced bus capacity, limited athletics, and no social gatherings. Students would attend buildings in cohorts (Monday, Wednesday or Tuesday, Thursday with either alternating Fridays for each cohort or teachers working onsite on Friday), and families within the same household would be in the same cohort. Nichols added that if a hybrid plan is selected, parents would still be allowed the option to have students learn strictly virtually as well.

Steps continue to be forthcoming as the school board will vote for their recommendation at the August 3 meeting. From there, a follow-up survey will be conducted with the expectation that school board members will approve the plan at their August work session.