Virginia School Districts Head in Different Directions When It Comes to COVID-19

By Amie Knowles

November 7, 2020

One southern district goes virtual, while their neighbor plans to reopen soon.

DANVILLE – On Friday, Virginia reported 1,568 new COVID-19 cases. That’s the highest single day caseload in more than a month. The problem seems to be under control in Northern Virginia but on the other end of the state, school districts are struggling to decide what to do. Even districts right next to each other are making different decisions.

Leading up to the start of in-person instruction starting Monday, Nov. 9, Danville Public Schools closed facilities for Election Week.

The response wasn’t only a safety measure in advance of the students’ arrival. Rather, the decision came in light of the election.

Eight Danville schools served as voting precincts on Tuesday. Teachers and preschool students did not report to their in-person classes Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. In fact, DPS offered all teachers and staff an opportunity to work from home for the week.

The division noted that teachers not assigned to one of the eight precinct schools could choose to work from their classrooms. Additionally, teachers assigned to one of the eight schools used as polling places could work from their classrooms on Thursday and Friday, only, if desired.

DPS noted that all schools used as polling places received thorough cleanings before opening on Monday for face-to-face students.

While school staff reported to their buildings and kindergarten through 12th grade teachers reported to their classrooms for months, all children except preschool students stayed home. The teachers presented their lessons virtually from the actual school building. Meanwhile, grade school students tuned into class from their computers.

Next week, that changes.

Danville plans for phases

Several grade levels begin in-person instruction on Nov. 9. That’s Phase One.

In elementary school, kindergartners through third graders and special education self-contained students will attend Monday and Tuesday and again on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday remains an at-home school assignment day.

In middle school, grade 6, Group A will attend Nov. 9 and 12, Monday and Thursday respectively. Group B will attend Nov. 10 and 13, Tuesday and Friday respectively. Wednesday remains an at-home school assignment day.

At the high school level, freshmen and seniors, Group A, will attend Nov. 9 and 12, Monday and Thursday respectively. Group B will attend Nov. 10 and 13, Tuesday and Friday respectively. Wednesday remains an at-home school assignment day. The plans include Danville Alternative Program, Adult Ed and Extended Day.

The division won’t waste time going into Phase Two. That happens only one week later, starting Monday, Nov. 16.

Unfortunately, no matter how good a school division’s plan might sound, there’s still a chance that COVID-19 could creep through classroom doors.

When asked about concern over a potential COVID-19 spike in the school system or Danville area as in-person classes resume, Anne Moore-Sparks affirmed the division’s pandemic response.

“We are always concerned, but have confidence in our plan,” Moore-Sparks, the district’s community outreach specialist, said.

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Henry County reverses direction

Next door in Henry County, things are different. Starting Monday, Nov. 9, students will return to class on the computer, rather than in-person. The switch occurred less than a month after the district started in-person instruction on Oct. 12.

Following a hybrid learning plan, students attended class based off of an A/B model. That meant that students who attended on A days were in school Monday and Tuesday and learned virtually from home on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. B day students attended in person on Wednesday and Thursday and learned virtually from home on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.

Monica Hatchett, HCPS’s director of communications and organizational learning, relayed that some things worked, while others didn’t.

“Because we have students who felt strongly about developing relationships and communicating in person with their teachers and there are a number of students who do not have internet access at their homes, we felt it was important to meet in person as long as was feasible to support students in this way. We have had the opportunity over the course of that month to help students better prepare for the possibility of extended virtual learning in the event that that became a necessity,” Hatchett said. “One of the concerns we had during in-person learning was the fact that students who remained virtual no longer had the opportunity to receive meal delivery.”

Unfortunately, pandemic cases spiked in the county, prompting a change in the school division’s plans.

Starting Monday, students will stay home for the remainder of the semester – and the beginning of the next one.

Teachers, administrators and other school staff will still report to their buildings each morning to complete their work.

Between a rock and a hard place

The school division’s decision sent some parents, grandparents and caregivers back to the drawing board. While reverting back to virtual learning could help slow the virus’s spread, those with children in the home received a four-day warning for two-and-a-half months’ worth of needing reliable childcare.

In Martinsville, many households depend on both parents working. Additionally, if a child comes from a single parent home, mom or dad can’t simply quit work to stay home with their kid; there would be no income.

Also, many parents never anticipated teaching their children schoolwork, especially without an education-based degree.

The school system recognized those issues.

“We understand that virtual learning is difficult for working families. Our staff will be working closely with students and parents to support them in every possible way,” Hatchett said. “We strongly encourage parents and students to stay in constant contact with their teachers and other school staff members to ensure they have what they need to be successful.”

There are community resources available for children as families make the switch back to virtual leaning.

“We are very grateful for community partners who provide childcare to students learning virtually,” Hatchett said. “We continue to encourage them to share information about their services with our families by tagging us on social media so that families are aware of the supports available to them.”

Reevaluating the plan

The current plan suggests a return to school date of Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. That’s the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

However, the plans could change between now and then. Division leaders will inform the public of any changes when information becomes available.

“Certainly, they will continue to monitor a variety of data points on a weekly basis, just as they have done since the initial closure in March,” Hatchett said. “In the event that we are able to make a change prior to the expected return to hybrid learning on January 19, we will alert families as soon as possible.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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