By Taylor Boyd
Gov. Ralph Northam’s directive for all Virginia school divisions to make in-person learning a possibility by Mar. 15 is likely to bring the discussion to the forefront during the Patrick County School Board’s meeting Thursday.
Patrick schools currently offer a hybrid instructional plan, with some students attending classes and others sticking to the virtual learning option.
Northam called for schools statewide to have a plan to allow students to attend some form of in-person learning by Mar. 15. At a recent update, Northam said there was a lot of uncertainty when school divisions were planning this school year, and there were no easy decisions for parents, teachers, or school administrators.
Brandon Simmons, chairman of the Patrick County School Board, said the school system is already in line with everything Northam suggested.
“I didn’t see anywhere where he was saying you should offer full-time in-person learning. I feel like everything he said, we’re already doing in Patrick County,” he said, and added that he thinks Northam’s call will have more parents and students wanting to go back to four-or-five days sooner, which he also supports.
“I’ve always been all for getting back to school as soon as we can. I feel like with all school employees being offered the vaccine, and once the second stage of the vaccine has been given, that should help the situation a lot. That should help us be able to move forward quicker with getting students back to school four-days,” he said.
“I’m not saying that I think 100 percent should go to school tomorrow, but I feel like we should be talking about” plans to include more groups in the four-day school weeks, Simmons said.
“I think mainly Gov. Northam’s expectation of the March 15 is for those school divisions that have not had students in-person instruction this year. I think there’s 40 in Virginia,” Schools Superintendent Dean Gilbert said.
Noting that the division was ready to start in-person learning earlier this year but was forced to move to virtual learning due to a staffing shortage, Gilbert said when the hybrid learning plan was offered, students had the option of attending two-days in-person instruction.
“We have introduced other student groups like special education, English language learners, 504 plans some speech language and IAPS, and at-risk pre-k through 2” to go in-person four-days a week, he said, and added the division now is starting to look at other student groups to transition to four-days a week classroom instruction.
“We are meeting the expectations of the governor on that end,” Gilbert said, adding Northam’s call was essentially telling school divisions to “stop dragging your feet and get kids in as much as you can.”
Northam said emerging data suggests “that schools don’t have the kind of rapid spread that we’ve seen in other congregate settings.”
He added the current COVID-19 data indicates it’s time to find a path forward for in-person learning.
“In the past 11 months, our children have been champions. They have made sacrifices, they’ve endured a lot of change, and uncertainty and so have their parents,” Northam said. “But we know this has taken a toll on our children and our families. My fellow pediatricians say they are seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues, and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients. They’re writing more prescriptions such as anti-depressions and stimulants, and that’s just not a good direction for us to keep going.”
Noting declines in academic performance under virtual learning, Northam said “children learn better in classrooms and that’s where they need to be.”
Ryan Lawson, of the Peter’s Creek District, said, “pretty much what Northam’s asking for is what we’ve been doing all along. I don’t think that necessarily will change anything. Not to say that something won’t change, but I don’t think it will change based off his request.”
“I feel it’s going to be a long discussion at the school board meeting on Thursday. I want all the kids back, but it was specifically said in his announcement that kids need to be back while following all mitigation strategies,” Lawson said.
He noted the school division has been trying to phase more students in all along, but has met with holdups, particularly related to the weather and buses.
“I think we’re at the point now though that our transportation is going to be what hampers us,” Lawson said.
In a call to parents Monday, school officials said bus riders may now sit two per seat, providing masks and other mitigation controls are followed. Buses also will be disinfected after each route.
Walter Scott, vice-chairman, said he hopes all the steps will have a positive impact.
“I’ve commented several times that I’m up for everyone is school four and five days a week. But I hope his (Northam’s) ruling helps us get the students back in school,” Scott said.
He also believes the topic of sending students back to classrooms will be a topic when the board meets Thursday.
“It will be discussed. I will be bringing it up,” Scott said.
Amy Walker, of the Mayo River District, and Shannon Harrell, of the Blue Ridge District, were not available for comment.