school board meeting reopen schools 101220

Tom and Ashley Bringenberg, who are teachers and parents, attended the school board meeting Monday night with their three children, Hazel, Tommy and Lily. Lisa Carney (right), also a Fauquier County teacher, was also present to ask that the school board keep schools closed to students until January.

According to the results of a Fauquier County School Division survey completed by parents, 68% of students would like to return to school in person beginning Nov. 9 and 32% would like to attend classes remotely through at least the end of the semester.

The results of the survey, announced at Monday night’s school board meeting, were based on a survey return rate of 88% percent (representing 9,184 students). The remaining 1,231 students, whose families did not respond to the survey, have been placed in the pool of students who will return to school buildings two days a week – half on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays.

After those students were added to the hybrid model, the school division announced that 71% of children will attend in-person classes while 29% will continue to learn virtually.

Students are locked into their respective “in school” or “virtual” groups until the end of the semester -- unless a student who is attending school in person under the hybrid model has a health reason for switching to virtual.

The hybrid model – which will have remote students watching their teachers in the classroom via webcam -- is scheduled to begin Nov. 9.

One of the main challenges to bringing students back into the classroom is transportation, but only 31% of parents indicated, through the survey, that they will need bus transportation. In a “regular” year, about 60% of students ride buses to school.

Of course, it’s not a regular year. The pandemic that closed schools in March means that children must remain distanced from one another, so buses can hold only half as many students. Superintendent of Schools David Jeck explained that it will take about three weeks to plan new bus routes, and several days for bus drivers to take test runs of the new routes, without children, to work out any difficulties.

A presentation on the reopening plan states that 18 routes are still without drivers. Taking into account absenteeism, that could leave 20 routes a day open. The district has only seven substitute drivers, so the transportation department will explore staggered bell times and/or double routes for some elementary schools. The presentation stated: “… even with only an expected one-third ridership, staffing the routes could be challenging.”

Another staffing problem could be substitute teachers. Since school board members put out the word that more substitute teachers were needed, more people have signed up to be substitutes. The school division now has 195 substitute teachers who will be ready to teach Nov. 9, said Jeck.

But not everyone thinks that is enough. Susan Niber, an instructional assistant at Greenville Elementary, spoke during citizens time Monday, saying, “195 substitute teachers are not 195 available substitute teachers…. We lacked subs before. This has made the substitute crisis even worse… And, subs are not teachers.” She said that teaching in the classroom while engaging with students learning from home via computer is tough for an experienced teacher. She worried that for a sub, it will be even tougher.

And, she reasoned, teachers are more likely to be calling in sick or quarantining during the pandemic.

Other topics discussed Monday included safety measures to prevent the spread of disease and communication with parents and staff if an infection is identified.

Children and staff will be required to wear masks on the bus and in school. Frank Finn, assistant superintendent for student services and special education, explained that in certain situations -- perhaps involving children with an Individualized Education Program – face shields would be allowed. “Some children have a very hard time wearing a mask all day,” students who have asthma or those who are on the spectrum, for instance.

Other safeguards would include daily student health screenings, physical distancing, facility cleaning, hand washing and revamping of clinic spaces to allow for children with symptoms to be isolated.

Regarding notification of the community when cases occur, schools spokeswoman Tara Helkowski explained the school division’s COVID dashboard that shows how many people have reported positive COVID tests from each school facility. She said that positive cases would be tracked cumulatively, and that both rapid tests and PCR test results would be included.

In the case of a positive test, she said, the particular school community would be notified with more specific information – if a whole classroom had to be quarantined, for instance. And contract tracing would be accomplished with assistance from the health department.

The complete presentation on reopening can be found on the schools’ website.

Citizens time

About 24 residents in total took their three minutes in front of the microphone to address Jeck and school board members. More than half wanted reassurance that the board would not reverse course on their decision to open schools Nov. 9; some were disappointed that children would only attend in-person classes two days a week or that in-person classes were not resuming sooner.

Many in the get-back-in-school camp called out by name a group known as FCPS1 Equity, which has been lobbying to remain virtual until at least the end of the first semester. The group submitted a petition to the school board with 1,400 signatures and has been organizing to present a united front to argue against opening schools to students. Before the school board meeting, for instance, about 40 or so parents and teachers stood in the rain in front of Taylor Middle School. The orange signs they held cautioned against opening schools prematurely.

Some of these parents asked the board to reconsider its decision to resume in-person learning for more students, stating that for safety and to prevent disruption, the reopening should be delayed until January.

Mike Hammond, one of the leaders of FCPS1 Equity, spoke on behalf of himself and five other residents who thought opening schools was a mistake. He spoke for Josh Erdossy, who pointed out that some virtual students are flourishing under the system in a way that will be impossible if they are watching their teacher on screen without the opportunity to interact.

Hammond read a letter from Natalie Erdossy, who thought it was unwise to rely on the “honor system” for health screenings. She predicted that a child with minor symptoms could be sent to school anyway, potentially infecting teachers, other children and the bus driver, all of whom would have to pay for COVID testing and quarantine.

Taking the other side of the issue, several speakers said that COVID affects children less severely than adults, and the fatality rate is low. They felt that with proper mitigation, schools could open safely.

Tammy Rogers said, “Parents want kids back in school and are willing to deliver kids to the front door. Any time in the classroom is beneficial.”

Students who spoke Monday were eager to be back in the classroom. Nolan Anderson, who is a sophomore at Kettle Run High School, said, “the virtual thing is not working.” He explained what it was like when the schools first went virtual. His mother, a teacher at C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary School, was gone all day and his younger brother was with her. “I hated being by myself all day… Students need social interaction. With the safety plans in place, it should not be a problem. Students are not engaging with their teachers. I don’t think this should be the new normal.”

Jen Robinson, who has a daughter at Liberty High School, referred to the slogan of the Fauquier Education Association, saying ‘“Only when it’s safe’ has turned into ‘only when it’s convenient.’” She pointed to Culpeper, which has opened its schools to students. “In Culpeper, they aren’t afraid to show up. Our kids are stuck at home.”

Katelynn Stern asked the school board to “stay steadfast against the bullies of the FEA, the media and FCPS1 Equity.”

Reach Robin Earl at rearl@fauquier.com

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