Local school officials are starting the complex work of trying to figure out how they can get students to school and teach them, all the while staying within the school reopening rules set by Gov. Ralph Northam.
Wednesday, School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers announced on the school system’s website the formation of a task force to develop the plans necessary to open schools in Pulaski County.
“We are happy to announce that Pulaski County Public Schools has formed a taskforce to reopen schools for the 2020-2021 school year,” Siers said. “Members of this taskforce include school administrators, elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, high school teachers, special education teachers, students, and parents.
“The PCPS taskforce will be working over the next several weeks to develop plans that are in accordance with guidance from the Virginia Department of Education for reopening under Phase II and Phase III of Governor Northam’s overall COVID 19 response plan.
“While both of these scenarios will offer a variety of educational programs and continued support for our students, it is important to note that guidance for both of these phases does not include an avenue that allows for the immediate return of all students on a daily basis. We understand that this is not an ideal situation for most families, but hope to assure everyone that the members of our taskforce will do everything possible to get students as much face to face instruction as is allowed,” Siers said.
He continued that the faculty and staff of Pulaski County Public Schools also understand that many families might be hesitant to send their children back to school for any length of time next year, and have therefore developed the Pulaski County Virtual Academy to help meet the needs of these students and their families.
“Virtual Academy classes are offered at no cost to Pulaski County students, will be taught through the Virtual Virginia platform, and allow for an easy transition back to each student’s regular school when the time comes since they will remain enrolled there while participating in the academy,” Siers added.
“We do plan to offer these virtual courses throughout the 2020-2021 school year and are prepared to extend this option into the 2021-2022 school year if needed.
“I personally appreciate the time and effort that our taskforce members have agreed to volunteer in order to help put our plans together. It is likely that some members may reach out to a few of you throughout our community as they prepare to offer feedback and suggestions. Please know that our final plan will be developed through a thoughtful and deliberate process that keeps the education and wellbeing of children as the primary objectives. Also, please know that our PCPS faculty and staff are anxiously looking forward to a time when we can get all of our students back into our schools every day,” Siers said.
The goal for school officials now is to develop a plan for reopening in Phase II of the governor’s reopening plan. Phase II incorporates appropriate health and safety guidelines, transportation with social distancing, instructional programming, assessments, and additional services for students.
A plan must also be developed for opening in Phase III of the governor’s plan.
Phase II guidelines include:
-Face to face education can be provided to special education, English Language Learners, and Pre-K to Grade 3 under strict social distancing guidelines. (6 feet of distancing inside of the classrooms, one student to every other seat on the bus, and communal spaces must be disinfected after each use.)
- – 50 person limit on gatherings.
- – Health guidelines will include daily screenings of students and staff, remote learning/work at home options for high risk individuals, and face coverings when 6 feet of distancing cannot be maintained.
- – Limited extra-curricular activities with social distancing can occur. (Buildings are limited to 30 percent capacity or no more than 50 people maximum, 6-10 feet of separation between participants, facilities and equipment must be sanitized between each use.)
Phase III guidelines include:
- – Face to face education can occur for all students under strict social distancing measures. (6 feet of separation, limit transitions & mixing of students, communal spaces must be disinfected after each group’s use, and use of facemasks when distancing cannot be maintained.)
- – Group size limits are subject to the executive order when Phase III begins.
- – Health screenings will continue.
- – Athletics may be expanded with mitigation standards.
Several steps have already been taken by school officials toward a successful reopening. Those include:
- – Applying and being approved for over $854,841 of CARES Act funding. This includes Chromebooks for all K-5 students, two additional ITRTs (2 years), and mobile hotspots/mifi’s that can be checked out by students without internet connections.
- – Purchasing 160 touchless thermometers to be used in the health screenings as students get on buses and/or enter schools.
- – Purchasing cloth facemasks to have on hand for students, faculty and staff
- – Started a sign-up process for families who want to continue with full virtual learning for the first semester regardless of which phase we open under. (Working out the details for utilizing Virtual Virginia’s on-line platform.)
- – Moving forward with providing services to special education students through private day placements and Extended School Year programs.
- – Moving forward with summer credit recovery courses, 9th and 10th grade PE credits (Camp Cougar), and athletics conditioning and skill development.
To make reopening work, there are several challenges for school officials to consider. Those include:
- – Scheduling students for transportation as buses will be limited to 11 students per bus at a time. Other types of mitigations might be acceptable to increase this number, but school divisions would assume all responsibility.
- – Utilizing appropriate social distancing measures for younger students.
- – Providing distance learning in all homes without internet access.
- – How to offer CTE lab/shop courses on an intermittent attendance schedule.
- – Scheduling recovery time for all students to have access to curricula that was not covered during the final quarter of this year. (We’ll have to revisit our calendar.)
- – Childcare for faculty and staff members whose children will not be attending school each day. (Approximately 135 school age students for PCPS employees.)
- – Reducing transitions at the secondary schools.
- – Financial implications of a non-standard start. (Loss of enrollment, additional transportation costs if multiple daily bus runs are utilized, athletics budgets minus football revenue, and impact on food services.)
- – Providing professional development to teachers who have limited experience guiding on-line learning.
Considering all this, Siers told the school board “this will probably be the busiest summer in the history of public education as we are pretty much reinventing schools.”
He noted communication with families will be more crucial than ever once we have our plan developed and approved.
Siers said the Phase II or III reopening will not allow for the social and emotional needs of students to be addressed as well as they would be under a traditional schedule.
“The next step will be to plan for whatever transition is next. We could be moving back a phase or moving beyond phase III. Either way, we’ll need a transition plan,” Siers said.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot