ASHLAND — Hanover County Public Schools superintendent Michael Gill told supervisors that the 2020-2021 opening was a unique experience for teachers and students but described the first days of school as a successful return to learn for more than 1,680 county students.
“To say that this has been a unique opening of schools would probably be the understatement of the century,” Gill said as he presented his annual back to school report to Hanover supervisors. “Nevertheless, it has been a successful one.”
More than 10,000 of those students returned to campuses for face-to-face instruction, while about 6,500 opted for online instruction in a return to learn plan that offered options for students and parents.
Gill noted several factors that made opening day a success, including a decision to delay the opening by one day for most students. Transitional students were welcomed on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the traditional first day of school in Hanover County.
Students in kindergarten, first, sixth and ninth grades had the opportunity to explore new campuses without the congestion of a full student body. Gill said the transitional period relieved stress for these students.
“That model was actually so successful that parents, students and our teachers and administrators have asked that we keep that model even after the pandemic,” Gill said.
He also lauded a Hanover County School Board action that designated the first Monday following the opening as a professional development day. While Gill acknowledged a day off that early in the calendar is unusual, he noted the need for teachers to take a day to examine and revise plans in an educational environment that is novel and unique.
But, Gill saved the majority of his praise for the teachers and HCPS staff who have showed “amazing creativity” in planning and initiating a return to learn plan that included an ample amount of unknown factors.
For example, in order to offer parents the choice of online instruction versus face to face, a new online school was formed to accommodate at-home learners.
“We built and opened the first online school in the county’s history in a matter of weeks,” Gill said. “To think about three years ago when we were talking about our five-year technology plan and building our infrastructure at schools and trying to get laptops for teachers. To go from that point to opening a fully online school is truly something to be proud of,” he continued.
Ashland supervisor Faye Prichard questioned Gill regarding that online school and queried the superintendent to the reasoning that prompted the creation of a separate online school.
Prichard said the transfer to a new online school left some students with a sense of abandonment from their home campuses.
Gill acknowledged that students do need that connection with their home schools, and said online students would be included in school activities centered at their home campuses, and would graduate with those student bodies.
Prichard also asked why a hybrid system was not chosen that allowed students in class and remote instruction.
“Why an online school versus hybrid education?” Prichard questioned. “There are multiple models and I’m curious about why we went in this direction.”
Following a meeting with other division superintendents earlier in the week, Gill said he was convinced there were advantages and disadvantages to all options being used or considered, but Hanover officials decided asking teachers to instruct students in online and classroom situations did not seem like the best option for county teachers.
Gill said the hybrid option resulted in less direct classroom time with teachers, and “we didn’t feel that would offer our students the best contact from an educational standpoint and maximize the school day.”
Regarding the separate online school, Gill said, “What we have found is that online presents its own challenges, and to ask our teachers and our administrators to live in both worlds, quite frankly, is an unfair ask.”
Gill told supervisors 6,300 Chromebooks were shipped directly to online students to avoid long lines and delays at campuses.
In response to another Prichard inquiry, Gill acknowledged that some of those devices had been collected from campuses and repurposed so all online students would have devices on the first day of school.
New devices have been ordered for all students, but a nationwide surge in demand has caused delays in those orders. Another shipment is expected in October, but how many that order will contain is still unknown. Gill assured supervisors that all students would eventually have new devices, thanks to CARES money allotted by the board.
The superintendent said a successful return to learn is dependent on good communication with parents and teachers, and a continuing relationship with county officials and the Chickahominy Health District.
“We have gotten to be on a first name basis with a lot of our county counterparts, specifically the Chickahominy Health District (CHD),” Gill said. “We are indebted to Dr. (Thomas) Franck and his staff for their service as we collaborate to make sure we are implementing the guidance of the CHD, CDC and the Virginia Department of Education.”
Prichard asked about procedures and action taken when students or a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 or is exposed to someone who has.
Gill said the school makes immediate notification to the CHD, and they investigate and determine who has been contacted or affected by exposure. Parents of those affected are notified by principals, and information regarding the outbreak is relayed to all parents of students at the campus in question.
“When we do have a positive case, it is incumbent on us to handle it in the correct way, both from the logistical end but also from the communication end,” Gill said.
Reports of positive tests forced students at Liberty Middle School to learn remotely for the first week of school, and there were two cases reported from students on buses headed to John Gandy Elementary School. Two staffers at Kersey Creek Elementary School also have tested positive.
The superintendent expressed his confidence in the plan, but also noted the importance of flexibility and an ability to adjust where necessary.
“We are learning right along with our students,” Gill said. “As we learn, we continue to refine our plan.”
Identified areas of concern include higher numbers of students in the online classes and the amount of screen time required for elementary students.
“I am incredibly proud of the Herculean effort it has taken to get both the face-to-face and online school up and running and to offer that option to our parents,” Gill said. “Our parents know what works best for their students … and their family dynamic.”
Gill acknowledged extraordinary efforts from all employees of the system, including custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others that contributed to the opening day success.
He also cited a crew of teachers who have gone above and beyond to ensure a successful experience for their students.
“When you are forced to be creative, it is amazing what people can come up with. I have always been impressed with the creativity of those who serve our students, but never more than this year.”