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Powhatan County Public Schools planning for full return in fall
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Powhatan County Public Schools planning for full return in fall

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POWHATAN – After more than a year of operating Powhatan County Public Schools (PCPS) under intense COVID-19 restrictions, superintendent Dr. Eric Jones said it is his goal to see operations return as close to pre-pandemic conditions as possible this fall.

School division staff plans to have pre-kindergarten through 12th grade return to five-day, in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year, Jones said. He pointed out that there are still some unknowns that could impact the school year, but with decreasing cases of COVID-19 and increasing numbers of people who are vaccinated, he is optimistic about the chances of a much more normal learning experience for students.

In a survey sent out to families of Powhatan students, about 97% said they want to return for in-person instruction, Jones said. The remaining 3% said they are interested in virtual, and they will have to apply and be approved for that option.

“I was anticipating about 5%, so I wasn’t that surprised. Just as a community and as a state we are trending toward a return to normalcy. I think people are anxious to get back to that, so I anticipated that most of our students and their parents would want them to be back. I was a little surprised it was as low as 3% but happy that was the case,” Jones said.

Still, he pointed out that the percentage of students who chose to attend in-person during the school year that just ended was higher at 82% to 85% than any in the region he is aware of, so there was always a strong commitment for students to be back in a face-to-face environment.

While guidelines are always subject to change, Jones said there are goals he has for how the new school year will look, and the school division will be doing everything possible to get to those goals as quickly and safely as possible.

He said the state has been focused on the more recent loosening of restrictions and answering questions about that, so it has not released as much information about the new school year.

He has been informed by the state that school divisions should anticipate summer school offerings will mirror practices in place at the end of the school year that just ended. That includes masks, social distancing, and some of the other strategies.

“The good thing about summer school is we already have smaller numbers in classrooms, so it is not as big of an impact in terms of social distancing, but if we can get some relief from the masks, even if it is in the middle of summer school, we will certainly take advantage of that,” he said.

Jones said that he hopes that by July 1 the state will communicate more about the new school year and any safety and mitigation strategies PCPS needs to put in place to have time to address them before school starts on Aug. 23.

Face-to-face learning

While many families will be wondering about issues such as masks, social distancing, and class sizes, Jones said it is too early to definitively say how that will play out at the start of the school year.

“All I can say is that all the metrics and I think even the steps that the governor has taken are trending toward us returning to normal,” Jones said. “The mask mandate was lifted for most settings other than public transportation and schools. Until that is lifted, we won’t know what it will look like next year, and the same with social distancing requirements.

“Our hope in Powhatan and our goal would be to not have social distancing and have classrooms look as normal as possible next year. But we need to make sure we can do that safely and legally,” he continued.

Jones said his staff is planning to have a normal school year with students in classrooms without masks and without social distancing guidelines if they are able to do so. PCPS also intends to have “full and robust” extracurricular and co-curricular activities unless it is prohibited from doing so, he added.

As far as transportation, while the school divisions haven’t gotten permission to run routes as normal, it would be best for everyone involved if the school buses are allowed to run at or near capacity, he said.

While restrictions may be lifting, the school divisions’ commitment to cleanliness and maintaining a safe atmosphere for students will not, Jones said. Many of the methods implemented to combat the risk of COVID-19 are just good practices to prevent the spread of germs that school staff appreciated and want to see continued.

PCPS did administer standards of quality (SOL) tests at the end of the latest school year. While those will not count toward accreditation, they will be helpful in determining if students need extra support and assistance, Jones said.

The schools also did end-of-year assessments to see where students stand after a full year of instruction, he added. Staff will be analyzing that data over the coming and making determinations about instructional programs based on students’ needs.

“We are doubling the size of our summer program by offering full day for elementary students, and we are really pleased with the response that we have had in terms of students signing up for summer school,” he added. “I think that will help us start off next year more normal because those students who need it are going to be getting basically twice the amount of instruction they would get in a normal summer.”

COVID concerns

Data is showing that as more and more people across the country are getting one of the COVID-19 vaccinations, the number of positive COVID-19 cases is decreasing, Jones said. For the benefit of public safety, PCPS is recommending that people who are eligible be vaccinated, including students who are old enough.

PCPS even held a vaccination clinic on June 2 that had 218 people signed up to receive the Pfizer vaccine. The primary target age was students ages 12 to 17.

However, the school division also recognizes that it is a family decision and has no plans to mandate that students or staff be vaccinated before they come back to school, Jones said.

“If we did that, it would be something that would be dictated by the state and not by Powhatan Schools. At least that is our current thinking,” he said.

Some school divisions in the state are running pilot programs offering rapid testing when they think someone might have COVID-19 or have come in contact with someone who tested positive, but Powhatan is currently not participating in that program, Jones said.

“That is what is being piloted in areas across the state that we are not currently doing. But it is unknown if that is going to be a recommended practice or even a required practice,” he said.

Virtual learning

Those families who wish to have their students learn virtually will need to demonstrate they have a medical reason, they have demonstrated success in a virtual environment previously, or they have some other extenuating circumstance that necessitates them being in virtual instruction, Jones said.

“This year was voluntary – you could decide to be virtual or not. We did have some students who chose to be virtual who weren’t successful at it, so we want to make sure we provide as much support in a face-to-face environment as we can for students,” he said,

The school division is also taking away the requirement that those who sign up for virtual have to commit to a whole semester, as staff would hope they would transition back more quickly.

“I talked to a few parents who are concerned with students who are under the age of 12 that haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated yet. They may want to start them on virtual until they have access to a vaccine and then they want to move them back to a face-to-face environment after they have been vaccinated,” he said.

With the smaller number of students expected to learn virtually, Jones said the school division is committing not to have any teachers teaching both virtual and face-to-face unless they choose to do so.

To maximize PCPS resources, virtual secondary students are more than likely going to receive their instruction from an online private provider that specializes in virtual instruction, such as Virtual Virginia. They would still be considered Powhatan students, he said.

At the elementary level, the division is still looking at numbers. There may be a designated teacher for each grade level teaching students from all three elementary schools, he said.

“Until we get the final numbers, we don’t know what that will look like. If it doesn’t make sense for us to do it in terms of staffing, then we will be doing Virtual Virginia at the elementary level,” he said.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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