A majority of the members of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board stood by the decision to reopen the schools virtually for the first nine weeks.
Board member James Beers was absent at the Tuesday meeting — his home lost power during Tropical Storm Isaias.
Many of the parents who called in during the public comment section did not support online learning for the first nine weeks with a few citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Some questioned how a few hours of remote learning could make up for seven-plus hours of in-person, traditional instruction. Others offered suggestions, such as having hybrid classes for high schoolers or limiting the number of classes for high schoolers from eight to four and having semester classes instead of year-long classes.
Teachers who commented were thankful for the decision do work remotely.
“Our common goal this year is to get every student back to school,” said WJCC Public Schools Superintendent Olwen Herron. ”It is heartbreaking not to see our students in person but based on the guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Peninsula Health District, I believe its the best decision at this time.”
Representatives from the Virginia Department of Health and the Peninsula Health District were not available to show local data to the board because of a family health emergency, Herron said. No staff member was available as a replacement because of the storm.
Instead, school board members heard from Carrie Dolan, a spatial epidemiologist and assistant professor at William & Mary, who provided health data from other countries including China, Iceland and South Korea about COVID-19 impacts on education.
Dolan showed the board University of Virginia models of the COVID-19 spread since she could not comment on local numbers since she was not aware and is not part of the PHD’s efforts.
Herron said VDH had determined the Historic Triangle had a substantial level of community transmission and the recommendation was remote learning as the primary method of instruction and limiting in-person instruction to the most vulnerable students.
Herron noted the school has not gone through the 35 percent of teachers who requested accommodations for the school — about 25 percent are considered high risk. The plans was to reopen the school slowly to make teachers more comfortable with in-person learning first through smaller groups of students.
Several board members asked Dolan’s thoughts on the decision to reopen with remote learning for the first nine weeks.
“It’s not that we are not saying it’s not safe right now, we’re just saying that we have no conclusive information that points us in a right direction yet and that we have some very good pieces of data that are coming together,” Dolan said. “The global data, the national data, and the local data, give us some information we can work with but we’re still getting together all of the rest of the pieces of information that we need to decide if it’s all safe for not only the students but for the staff as well.”
Sean Walker, assistant superintendent for school leadership, said all students will receive a device for remote learning — tablets for students in kindergarten through second grade; laptops for third through 12th graders.
The devices have been ordered and if they do not arrive in time, the schools will provide backup learning paths, he said.
The district will also have a mixture of live and independent instruction for students and teachers will record and post live instruction to accommodate students schedules.
Teachers are expected to teach students Monday through Thursday. Fridays will be used for mix of emotional support for students and staff, follow-up activities for classes and remediation as needed.
The Special Education department is working on plans for in-person students including those with disabilities and in the Bright Beginnings program, Walker said.
Walker said 3,000 students, or about 25 percent of the student population, has signed up for the virtual learning academy available on StudentVUE, and parents can access their children’s attendance, grades and overall progress through ParentVUE.
More updates about the plan will be provided through virtual open houses and other updates to parents.
WiFi access for families in communities will be discussed at the next school board meeting. As for students and families with IEP plans, case managers will reach out to parents, Herron said.
School board comments
Jim Kelly and several of the other board members want classes to be in-person but support the superintendent’s decision.
“I want to open up school five days a week, I want extra classes,” he said. “I want all those things we took for granted last year and even six months ago –––that’s just not what we can do here.”
Board member Greg Dowell wanted school to reopen in Path 3. While he supports Herron and understands it’s an administration decision, he suggested in the future the board take a look about the policy and take on more responsibility with issues like this.
“I think shackling us to nine weeks is not only to be exhausting…we are going to lose so many underprivileged and underrepresented students in our community,” Dowell said. “I am concerned for our community…there is a great divide in this.”
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