school board meeting distanced

The June 29 school board meeting was socially distanced and only 50 people were allowed in Fauquier High's cafeteria. The school board is also livestreaming its meetings. 

It's not yet clear whether new state guidance reducing, in some cases, the recommended physical distancing among students in Virginia schools from 6 feet to 3 feet will have a substantive effect on Fauquier County’s plans for reopening its public schools. School board members will discuss reopening plans at a work session on Thursday, July 9.

Superintendent of Schools David Jeck said Tuesday he is not sure whether the new state guidance would substantially change the number of students that could attend in-person classes while still adhering to state recommendations.

The school board is considering five instruction models for the upcoming academic year, which could begin as soon as Aug. 19. The options range from providing instruction entirely remotely to having all students attend school in-person four days per week.

Though school board members said at a June 29 work session that some parents had expressed a desire to see students return to class in-person full time, the local teachers’ union and at least one school board member continue to support a “blended” model. In this format, half of students would attend school for two days per week, with the other half attending another two days. Wednesdays would be reserved for planning.

The school board is set to meet at 4 p.m. Thursday to continue its discussions on reopening plans and is scheduled to take a final vote on Monday, July 13.

Updated state guidelines put less emphasis on 6 feet of physical distancing

On Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Education updated its reopening recommendations for schools. While the new guidelines mirrored in most cases those released June 9, the 11-page document put significantly less emphasis on maintaining 6 feet of physical separation among students and indicated that 3 feet may be sufficient in some cases.

“Researchers agree that children are not contracting the new coronavirus at the same rate as adults,” said a July 6 letter to school division officials signed by State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. “However, data has yet to show whether young children transmit the new coronavirus at a similar rate as adults.”

The new guidelines suggest that “Schools are encouraged to aim for 6 feet of physical distance to the greatest extent possible.” It added, however, that in cases where maintaining that degree of physical distancing is “not feasible,” a “combination of face coverings and a minimum of 3 feet distance between everyone present” should be implemented. In the next paragraph, the document states that on school buses, “If 3 to 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained, wearing of face coverings is strongly encouraged.”

The new guidelines cite information from the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which have indicated recently that that physical distancing in a school environment might not need to be the 6 feet recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. However, the updated state guidelines emphasize at several points that the use of face coverings is strongly recommended in cases when less than 6 feet of physical distancing is maintained, especially for staff members.

Citing AAP guidance, however, the education department document said face coverings might not be feasible for some students - especially young children – or in classrooms where instruction would be impeded by the use of face masks; the state guidelines listed hearing-impaired students, students who are receiving speech instruction and students learning English as those whose education might be most negatively affected if their teachers were required to wear masks.

In any case, the recommendations from the state education department are not legally binding. School divisions are required to submit their reopening plans to the state, but those plans do not have to be approved by the education department.

“This process leaves the final decisions about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards,” said the letter from Oliver and Lane, adding at another point, “Public health conditions and practical limitations may inform decisions to deviate from the guidance.”

In a video address on Tuesday, Jeck emphasized that the state guidelines are not binding. “It's up to each locality to determine whether or not they're going to follow the guidelines or not,” he said. “We have to submit a plan, an instructional plan, plans related to transportation, etc. … But they're not submitted for approval. They're submitted as information to the state.”

On the issue of masks, Jeck was clear. “I'm getting a lot of questions about masks and, ‘Are people going to be required to wear a mask?’ And, ‘Is the CDC is requiring the wearing of a mask?’ No, they're not.”

On the model of instruction that will ultimately be implemented for the fall semester, Jeck emphasized that the choice is firmly in the hands of the school board. “It's hard to start giving pieces of information out about what you intend to do, when you don't know exactly what you're going to be doing. We've got to wait to get that direction from the school board,” he said.

Local teachers’ union continues to support blended instruction model

The updated state guidance has not changed the position of the Fauquier Education Association, the local chapter of the largest teachers’ union in Virginia. On July 3, FEA President Lauren Brill issued a letter to members supporting a reopening plan that would have half of students attend in-person classes two days per week, with the other half attending the other two days. A fifth day would be reserved for planning.

“At this time the FEA continues to support their statement in support of the blended A/B reopening plan,” Brill said in an email Wednesday morning. “In short, no, the FEA does not believe that [the new guidelines] would make the four-day-a-week model any more feasible! We feel it leads to more challenges and it doesn't address the concerns of safety any better.”

Stephanie Litter-Reber, the Lee District school board member, expressed a similar view. “The Phase 3 plan offers differing, almost conflicting, guidance,” she said in a July 7 email regarding the updated distancing recommendations. “Nothing about these guidelines gives me any level of confidence that there is a firm grasp on how this disease is transmitted.”

The new guidelines do not, in her view, make a four days per week of in-person instruction more feasible. “I don’t think that having all kids back in school 4 days a week is realistic given the resources that we have, the challenges we face, the guidelines we are trying to follow and the nonviable risk mitigations posed,” she said.

However, she said she would not support a completely remote instruction model, either. “I also recognize that 100% virtual, in Fauquier County, presents almost insurmountable challenges,” she said, citing the lack of reliable Internet access for many families and staff along with parents who do not have the option of staying home full-time.

Litter-Reber listed a number of difficulties in adhering to public health guidelines in a school setting, regardless of the specific plan the school board chooses. For instance, she said, “The AAP advises the use of tape to promote ‘one-way hallways.’ Adults in the grocery store couldn’t follow the same ‘one-way’ guidelines implemented in April.”

She continued, “The CDC recommends having children bring their own lunches - or serve individually plated meals in the classroom. During the 2019-2020 school year, almost 28% of our students were on free and reduced lunch - a number I fully expect to increase as a result of COVID and COVID related fall-out.”

Retaining cafeteria workers is difficult in normal times, Litter-Reber said, because pay is often better at similar jobs in the private sector. “We can’t retain nutrition workers to provide food in a group cafeteria situation. There is no way we are staffed to provide individual delivery options,” she said.

Wearing masks would be ideal from a safety standpoint, she said, but, “Expecting children to wear masks is also an unrealistic prospect.” She cited difficulties in communicating if masks were required as well as the inability of some staff to wear masks because of health issues.

“These guidelines make me wonder if some of the experts writing these guidelines and suggestions have ever had children, ever been around children, or ever stepped foot into a school,” she summarized.

Center District school board member Susan Pauling declined to comment for this story. School board members Duke Bland (Marshall District), Donna Grove (Cedar Run District) and Suzanne Sloane (Scott District) did not respond to a request for comment.

Reach Coy Ferrell at cferrell@fauquier.com

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