The vaccine became available to school teachers earlier this week.
The vaccine became available to school teachers earlier this week.

Floyd County has offered in-person options since the school year started last fall.

FLOYD – On Feb. 5, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he expects schools to return to in-person instruction by March 15. Schools in Floyd County were ahead of the curve. The Southwest Virginia school district has an enrollment of about 2,000 students. It has offered some in-person options since the first day of school last August.

“The governor’s proposed deadline was for school divisions that have had no in-person option for students. Our Pre K-3 (classes) have been in-person four days a week since August 11,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Innovation Jessica Cromer. 

Grades 4-12 attended class in-person twice a week prior to Feb. 23. That’s when, ahead of Northam’s deadline, the district launched in-person learning for everyone, four days a week. Wednesdays are reserved for virtual check-ins with students and deep-cleaning of school facilities. Cromer said most students opted in to the new plan. 

Floyd County Prefers Blended Environment

Back in summer 2020, FCPS officials conducted surveys and assembled task forces before making decisions about the structure of the upcoming school year. In a parent survey that garnered more than 1,300 responses, 77% of people preferred a blended learning environment (partially online and in-person) to an online-only one. A survey of teachers showed similar results. 

School officials consulted these surveys, public health experts, School Board members and more to arrive at their ultimate plan, which was a blended approach. An FCPS Online mode of instruction was also made available to all students. About a quarter of students chose the online-only option at the time.

Public Health Considerations

Cromer said when making decisions about how and when to offer in-person learning, “we work directly with the New River Health District and look at the pandemic data in our specific Floyd community.”

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases fluctuated around five in December and January. The case rate peaked in Floyd on Jan. 21 at 7.6 cases/day. This was just a month before Floyd County Public Schools expanded in-person learning. However, a rapid decline in daily cases then began. By Feb. 13, Floyd County was adding only one case/day. 

In addition, the county is rapidly vaccinating its residents. As of March 8, nearly 3,200 people in the county of 15,000 have received at least one vaccine dose. 

The school district has been tracking cases of COVID-19 within its schools since August. According to announcements released via the district’s Twitter feed, cases have been rare. The district has announced only 9 cases since August, the majority of which contact tracing found “were not contracted at the school.”

Districts Implement Mitigation Measures

Of course, the district doesn’t have much data yet on whether the jump from sending kids to school in-person two days per week to four has increased the spread of the virus. Furthermore, while fewer students are learning online-only since Feb. 23, many are still opting out of in-person instruction. Cromer said on March 5 that “virtual learning is still an option and we have approximately 22% of our students taking advantage of that option.” She added that this is a decrease from 29% since Feb. 23.

The schools are taking lots of precautions, Cromer said, to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. “Everyone is masked unless they are eating or exercising,” she said. According to the district’s website, students are physically distanced during bus rides and in classrooms. School meals are delivered to classrooms where desks are several feet apart, rather than eaten in the cafeteria. 

Overall, Cromer said, things are going well. “The community has done an excellent job adhering to the guidance so the spread of COVID has not been as impactful in Floyd and our students can remain in person,” she said.

Addressing Learning Loss 

Cromer said Feb. 23 “was like another first day of school” for teachers and students in grades 4-12. “There was a lot of excitement to all be together, but also some anxiety since we are in a pandemic and need everyone to follow the mitigation strategies,” she said. 

Whether in-person or online, Cromer said, the focus of the 2020-21 school year has been addressing “learning loss.” 

Learning loss is the idea that students are academically behind where they need to be because of classroom time missed during the pandemic. The concern is based on standardized test and other assessment data. Some education experts dispute that it’s a problem, or at least argue that keeping kids safe from COVID is more important than having them in school buildings. 

To Cromer, the issue is clear. “Our teachers have done a wonderful job of assessing student learning and planning instruction that fills in the gaps caused by the pandemic,” she said. “We are fortunate…to have (had) so many of our students in-person since August,” she added.

The district is currently finalizing plans for summer learning opportunities, Cromer said, “and will continue to address the learning loss for several years to come.”

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at info@vadogwood.com.