It’s been a little more a month since the York County community was rocked by the Grafton Complex fire and the school division is still trying to figure out the best course of action.
The Feb. 3 fire left students without a location for classes. York County School Division officials have been providing updates to parents and the community on scheduling and transportation and overall progress of the situation.
Students have been operating under an alternating schedule with their counterparts at Tabb Middle and York High School. Grafton students attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays with an additional 10 Saturdays and Tabb and York High students attend school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
There were two public forums held for parents in February but York County School Division Superintendent Victor Shandor said the administrators felt another forum was necessary to address further concerns from the community.
At the public forum last week, school administrators answered 12 questions about multiple topics, including student absences, the use of rolling backpacks and prom schedules.
Administrators spoke about after-school activities like sports and noted they are re-evaluating game schedules are coordinating shuttles.
Shandor answered a question concerning military families relocating before the extended school year.
“Our community is impacted by military students all the time,” he said. “We’re up to 40 percent impacted students.”
In addition to the 12 prepared questions, school administrators allowed 13 questions from the audience, many of them parents. Each person who asked a question did not identify themselves by name.
One parent asked why the school division decided to have classes every other day. Candi Skinner, chief academic officer, said too much time between classes, such as having a four-day weekend, could be a lapse in instruction with the possibility of the student forgetting their lessons.
Another was concerned about the shorter tests and his child not having enough time to answer questions.
Another parent asked if the student’s transcripts would explain the situation in terms of missing school days.
“Those are things we’re working on right now,” said Aaron Butler, director of student administration.
While one parent congratulated the division for doing a great job, she questioned if there was engineering enhancements to prevent the electrical fire from happening again.
“Right now it would be very difficult to do that,” an administrator said. “That would be a pretty extensive process to do.”
In terms of primary communication between parents and the teachers, Skinner said they asked teachers to post on Apsen, a tool parents use to communicate with teachers, letting parents know which communication method they will use.
A few days after the school forum, WYDaily spoke with Angela Poston-Hymel, a nurse at Riverside Hospital. She said her daughter, Serenity, is a junior at Grafton High School.
“Well, it’s frustrating but it has to be done,” she said when asked how she felt about the Grafton students’ situation.
Poston-Hymel said her daughter also attends the Governor’s School, so she technically goes to school six days a week.
The magnet school runs Monday through Friday and Grafton classes are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Some of the days are only half days, Poston-Hymel said.
“She’s just learning to budget her time,” she said. “She drives so that’s the fortunate part on her behalf––– yeah, that’s the only blessing.”
While Poston-Hymel doesn’t know what other solution the school division could have come up with, she mentioned several suggestions ranging from teaching kids in a used building or teaching kids in one classroom to which she replied, “this is not little house on the prairie” and there was even a suggestion to use the old K-Mart location which she thought was crazy.
RELATED STORY: Here’s an update on the Grafton School Complex (Free read)
“My only thing would have been night school,” Poston-Hymel said.
“It would’ve been rough either way,” she said. “It would’ve been terrible.”
Department of Education
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said in similar situations, VDOE answers any questions the school division has and provides examples on how other divisions have met the requirements.
“We try to be as helpful as we can be in suggesting ways of overcoming these challenges,” he said. “Ultimately this is a local school board decision.”
Pyle said VDOE’s role is to help the school understand its responsibilities like meeting the 990 instructional hours. Some suggestions he noted could be changing schedules or finding additional space.
“No two situations are alike so there’s no cookie-cutter solution that is going to meet the needs of every division that faces challenges like this,” he said. “We’re not going to dictate a solution from Richmond or say [do] this.”
He identified a couple school divisions who dealt with other situations such a roof collapsing or an earthquake.
In regards to reassuring parents, he referred WYDaily to the superintendent and the school board, adding he could not comment on the school division or Grafton situation.
Pyle said other school divisions received a waiver from VDOE to meet the state mandated instructional hours.
“In 2010, Montgomery County Public Schools met the 990 instructional hour requirement, the state Board of Education did grant a waiver to a regulation related to the length of the school day,” Pyle wrote in an email.
Blacksburg High School’s gymnasium roof collapsed in February 2010 and the entire building was closed, according to the waiver. In response, the high school and middle school students were on a double shift.
“The high school students, however, have a four-hour and 20 minute instructional day, and attend school from 2:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m.” the waiver noted. “In a related action, the Montgomery County School Board adopted a policy permitting students to be awarded standard units of credit even though the student completes less than 140 hours of instructional time.“
WYDaily asked Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the YCSD, why the school division did not submit a waiver for the 990 instructional hours before combining the schools or use another building for instruction.
Goff said the division was not eligible to submit a waiver until they had “exhausted all efforts,” including using spring break, which the division wanted to protect.
She noted the division wanted to keep the decision in the best interest of the students, adding the waiver takes 18 months to process with the state board of education.
When asked if there was an electrical fire at the Grafton Complex previously in 2009 to 2010, Goff said it’s not true.
“There are no records indicating anything,” she said, adding the only report is a fan motor part of the HVAC system overheating in 2008-2009. “That would be an unsubstantiated allegation.”
Goff mentioned other “rumors and speculations” from social media such as the military having space for the Grafton students or using the K-mart–––neither option was available.
“Grafton complex is a 300,000-square-foot facility––– when you consider the size of K-mart it’s 85,000 square feet,’ Goff said. “Folks raising these allegations are concerning.”
Goff said people with questions or information the school division needs to know can contact them directly.
“We want to be able to deter and debunk any myths that might be out there,” she added.
Coming to the current solution
During the forum, YCSD staff addressed concerns and questions from parents but seemed to still be in the process of figuring out a solution.
James Carroll, chief operations officer for the district, addressed the current situation and possible solutions.
“There is no perfect solution other than having a spare building [of] 300,000 square feet sitting around,” he said.
Carroll said there are currently more than 75 workers in the building working 10 hours a day at six days a week to have the building ready as soon as possible.
Carroll said the district recognized there were going to be issues with that solution but it seemed the best option. Other options considered were to use portable classrooms, but Carroll said that was quickly dismissed because it takes months to make them operable for students.
The district also discussed dividing students among the various schools but it was logistically difficult. There were other options considered as well but for a variety of reasons, they didn’t work with the needs and resources of the division.
Carroll said the current option was best because it provided students with an experience that was most like a regular day.
“It’s just about making sure our students receive the best quality instruction,” Skinner said. “Nine-hundred-ninety is a number but for us, we want to make sure that our Grafton students, [that] all our students, receive the same instruction, the same opportunities to learn.”
Skinner said the division had previously considered blended learning for instruction but was advised by VDOE that it was better for supplementing instruction and not intended to substitute for actual classroom hours.
In the meantime, Skinner said the schools have been working with principals and students to provide any additional instruction or tutoring that is needed.
The district has been granted an allowance in their window of testing as SOL testing approaches around the corner. Skinner said dates for testing will be moved back and information on new dates would be sent in the near future.
Students who planned to take Advanced Placement assessments will also be allowed to have their testing dates moved back.
“Our students will be prepared however, as a parent if you feel like this isn’t the right time for your student, there will be an option not to take the test,” Skinner said.
She said this was the first year that College Board, the organization that administers AP testing, required a down payment for tests and are willing to give a reimbursement for families.
To prepare for the tests, teachers have been providing additional classroom meetings at the Yorktown Library and doing online sessions with students.
Skinner said all seniors will have the opportunity to complete all course objectives prior to graduation and should be able to receive their diploma.