Schools have been out since March, but as the next academic year creeps around the corner local districts are still trying to finalize their plans for returning.
Public schools across the nation have been faced with the challenge of whether or not they will return for in-person classes in the fall. Some districts are considering virtual learning while others are planning to have in-person instruction.
And for some, a combination of both.
The federal government has also recently been pushing schools to reopen, with President Donald Trump threatening Wednesday he would withhold federal money to schools that do not reopen in the fall, according to a report from The Associated Press.
But local school districts are making decisions based on their own specific health situations.
“I would say public schools and the reason people become educators, those are not for political reasons,” said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. “You want to support students and help them grow, that’s our focus right now…so we’re not worried about pressure and politics, we’re worried about students and safety.”
Cox said WJCC is still in the process of finalizing “Return to Learn” plans and the district is considering a variety of options. WJCC officials presented ideas during their June 16 meeting ranging from virtual and remote learning, in-person instruction or a blend of both.
“We are getting close to finalizing those plans…but we also caution that it’s a moment in time, so whatever happens now and whatever we anticipate, that could all change based on guidance from [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Cox said.
There are a lot of challenges the schools will face with any option they choose.
If students return to school facilities in the fall, staff has to consider how to sanitize, clean and implement social distancing and mask-wearing policies. This will look different at various age-levels, where students might need different precautions or support.
For example, if younger students were learning reading from their teacher who is wearing a mask, then the school might have to consider younger teachers wearing clear or plastic face shields so the children can see their mouths move.
Decisions will also have to be made on the proper procedures for the schools if a staff member or student contracts the coronavirus.
If the school decides to go fully or even partially remote, then there has to be enough technological resources available. While many educational aspects went remote in the spring, schools still had to provide items such as physical learning packets for students who might not have laptops or internet access at home. If the district were to go remote, Cox said they would have to look at how to improve technological connectivity in the community.
“It’s entirely possible that whatever our options include, we could move between those options,” Cox said. “I don’t think it could be where we start in one place and that’s the way instruction is for the rest of the semester.”
WJCC hasn’t announced an official plan for the fall but Cox said more information will be presented at the school board meeting on July 14.
York County School Division
Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the York County School Division, wrote in an email Thursday that the team is working “very closely” with the Virginia Department of Health’s local health district ––Peninsula Health District–– and actually met with them Thursday morning.
“Our work group planning for the 2020-21 school year is using VDOE guidance, VDH guidance, CDC guidance and other source documents,” Goff wrote. “As you have seen, the guidance continues to be updated and revised, so staff regularly revisits information and guidance as it is released.”
She did not elaborate.
Peninsula Health District
Irene Ferrainolo, population health manager and spokeswoman for the Peninsula Health District, said the schools are working mostly with representatives from the VDOE and all of the school districts are in contact with the PHD’s epidemiologists.
“Our epidemiologists [are] here to act as consultants as the schools put their plans together,” she said.
Some ways are giving the school districts recommendations and following the CDC guidelines.
Ferrainolo said the VDH guidelines are “pretty much identical” to CDC’s and while she has heard there is a chance the CDC could revise them, the health district has yet to hear anything.
The PHD is following current CDC guidelines in the meantime.
Despite Trump’s sharp criticism, federal guidelines for reopening schools are not being revised, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
Dr. Robert Redfield said the agency would be issuing “additional reference documents” for parents and schools to facilitate the reopening and deal with safety concerns in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But he said there would be no changing of the overall guidance.
The CDC’s guidance recommends that students and teachers wear masks whenever feasible, spread out desks, stagger schedules, eat meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria and add physical barriers between bathroom sinks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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