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. 

At a work session of the Fauquier County School Board Monday, Superintendent of Schools David Jeck presented school board members with a plan – actually, a choice of plans -- to open schools in the fall. The meeting, held in Fauquier High School’s cafeteria, was the first time that school board members met in person with others in attendance since COVID-19 restrictions closed schools in mid-March.

Working parents were very much on school board members’ minds during the discussion of a blended learning approach – which would include some in-person teaching combined with remote learning. Board members' questions during the meeting revealed that they have heard from parents who are eager to have their children back in classrooms as much as possible.

Jeck started the meeting by acknowledging that he has heard parents express every possible opinion, from, “‘This is a bunch of hooey, you need to open up the schools,’ to ‘I’m not sending my child back to school until the virus is eradicated.’

“What it comes down to is, parents want to know, ‘Is my child safe? and ‘Is my child learning?’ “In order to get some guidance about where to start, administrators asked parents and staff members to complete a survey offering four options – in-person learning one day a week with remote learning four days a week; two days a week in-person and three days a week remote; a week in the classroom followed by a week remote; or 100% remote learning.

About 5,000 parents and 85% of staff members returned the surveys. About a third of those choose 100% remote learning, but the majority of responses favored the two-days-a-week in the classroom and three-day remote option. Data in hand, staff members set to work to consider how that might work.

Under that scenario, half of students would attend in-person classroom learning the first two days of the week while the other half participated in distance learning. Wednesday would be a planning day for teachers and offer an opportunity for kids learning remotely to ask questions and get some extra help. It also would provide an opportunity for custodians to do some deep cleaning in the school buildings. Thursday and Friday, the two groups of children would swap places – half receiving in-classroom learning and the other half learning remotely.

The compelling reason for that option was made clear when the board was shown an example of how a socially distanced classroom would look. “This is my least favorite slide,” said Jeck. “It’s sad.” The photo showed each child’s desk 6 or more feet distant from every other, so, of course, fewer children could be accommodated at one time.

Frank Finn, assistant superintendent for student services and special education, pointed out that the coronavirus is spread through face-to-face contact, when people are not socially distanced, so it’s important not to have too many children in each classroom.

A chart indicating how children might be seated on school buses showed one child in each seat; they’d alternate one at the window and one on the aisle to maximize the distance between each. In this scenario, all children would have to wear masks. The state Department of Education recommends that children sit in every other seat, but Jeck acknowledged that would be unworkable; each bus would only be able to seat seven children. He said the state is open to considering other ideas presented by school districts and that most other districts are asking for similar school bus exceptions.

Meals were another problem to be considered. To prevent too many children in the cafeteria at one time, some children might have to eat in their classrooms.

Remote learning presents unique issues; Jeck said that teachers learned new ways to teach in the spring when schools were closed, and the school division was forced to quickly adopt a remote-only learning model. But he pointed out that the fall would be different. “The spring was basically optional. This fall we will be presenting new material.”

Teacher training for remote learning is ongoing – particularly in Blackboard and Google Classroom – and teachers are adapting, he said. Parents, too, are able to get instruction in online learning so they can help their children while they are home and away from their teachers.

What about parents who both work, asked Stephanie Litter-Reber (Lee District). And what about teachers who can’t be home with their children because they are teaching in the classroom? How can they help their children navigate remote learning?

Litter-Reber said, “Many households are under huge amounts of stress. They are trying to work from home while trying to keep their kids happy and engaged. And some of those parents are now being called back to work.”

Donna Grove (Cedar Run District) said, “Every parent I’ve talked to wants to see their children in school four days a week. We’d like to get as many kids back in the classroom as possible.”

A four-day in-person school week wasn’t one of the options on the survey sent to parents, and school board members thought that option should be more thoroughly explored. They asked Jeck to gather more information through a new survey. The question they wanted answered: are there enough parents willing to embrace all-distance learning so that a four-day week in-classroom scenario would be doable for the rest?

“We’d like to gather more data,” said Susan Pauling (Center District) after the meeting.

The school board did vote to amend the planned first day of school, saying that school will not start before Aug. 19. Under the two-day in-classroom and three-day remote scenario, Jeck thought the schools could open on the 19th, but the need to re-survey parents with different options could push that date back further.

The school board is next scheduled to meet July 13; an emergency meeting may be called before that to consider the new survey data once it has been gathered.

Whatever is decided, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District’s epidemiologist Daniel Ferrell and the district’s medical director, Dr. Wade Kartchner, will review the plan to make sure it is adequate to prevent the spread of the virus. Once they get feedback from the health experts, school administrators will be able to submit the plan to the state for approval.

Reach Robin Earl at rearl@fauquier.com

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