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Back to School
Private companies, nonprofits rush to create spaces for Richmond children to attend virtual classes this year

Private businesses and nonprofits are altering or revamping their services in order to help fill the void left by school closures.

Their goal is not to replace the virtual instruction that public schools will provide, but to supplement it, as well as create a space where working parents can drop off their children during the school day.

Bundle of Joy Child Development Centers co-owner Kelley Womack Mulcunry said her group will offer virtual learning for children up to age 12 at four of its five locations.

“I think a month ago I was nervous, and worried that we wouldn’t be able to meet the needs,” Womack Mulcunry said. “But I’m quite confident now that we will be able to. And I think families that have that need, the more need that is there, the more we will rise to meet it.”

Bundle of Joy is bringing in additional staff for the fall, and will have a liaison at each location to help bridge the virtual gap between student and teacher. Their plan is to follow the counties’ school day schedule, complete with meal and recreational times.

“What we’re doing is allowing a space for students to be able to follow that school schedule strictly,” Womack Mulcunry said.

Bundle of Joy’s locations are upgrading their internet services to make them 10 times faster in order to accommodate the virtual process. They will require temperature checks at the door, do additional cleaning, and parents are not allowed in the facility.

Another local group pivoting its services to aid families is Celebrate RVA, which typically celebrates more than 1,000 children a year on their birthdays. Upon Richmond Public Schools announcing its virtual plans, Celebrate RVA decided to convert its 4,500 square-foot space into a learning center to support online education for students of all ages.

“We just saw a need with our community and with our neighbors, and decided to make this shift,” said founder and executive director Julia Warren.

The center will employ a “student success coordinator,” a full-time licensed teacher working as a liaison with RPS instructors to coordinate individualized student needs. The program will be open to residents of the income-restricted buildings above and adjacent to Celebrate, so they’ve implemented a program in which parents will be texted when it’s time to send their child down in order to stagger arrivals.

They’re also doing temperature checks, as well as hourly cleaning checklists and a weekly professional deep cleaning of the space. They’ve also instituted precautions such as a “dirty book bin” so that a child doesn’t put a book directly back on the shelf after they’ve read it.

Warren added that Celebrate’s space is ready made to accommodate and ease the anxiety some children may be feeling as a result of the pandemic — the space has holes in the walls for kids to climb through, balloon chandeliers, comfy couches and lots of bright colors.

“We’re just excited about this pivot, and what we’re truly excited about is collaborating with RPS. I want to make it clear that we aren’t educating these children,” Warren said. “RPS has been doing an incredible job with such a major pivot that we simply want to support their efforts.”

Superintendent Jason Kamras was touring the facility at Celebrate RVA earlier this week.

“We welcome every little bit of that help,” he said. “We’re not even going to try to do this alone, we need the support, the help, the love, the resources of the entire community. So we’re really grateful to have those kinds of investments.”

For some younger children, staying put at their preschool is an option.

First Baptist School, typically a preschool, has created a fall classroom for kindergarten-age children. On the morning RPS announced it was going virtual for the fall, preschool administrator Alex Hamp said First Baptist received a number of panicked calls from parents.

“The church and I really felt this need that we needed to step up and help them,” Hamp said. The church has a “COVID-19 team” which includes a doctor to help them prepare protocols to host children. They’ll do temperature checks each morning, maintain separate pods of children and keep different classes from using the playground with one another.

Different school systems are represented in the student body, so Hamp said one of the biggest challenges has been working out how the virtual learning processes may differ. When necessary, the church plans to institute its own curriculum and assessments.

“We are glad we’re able to help parents because they’re stressed, and these kids need some degree of normalcy in their lives,” Hamp said.

Having access to in-person tutoring and assistance may help children who would otherwise struggle with the transition to virtual learning.

There’s a range of learning styles within a classroom, said Karen Kochel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Richmond with research interests in childhood and adolescent social development.

Some students could find success in remote learning, while others could struggle.

“On the one hand, some students prefer to work in a way that is very hands on,” Kochel said. “And so it may be especially challenging for that group of students to stay motivated in a way that allows them to succeed in the classroom in ways that they typically have in the past.”

Back to School
As Richmond-area kids head back to virtual school, working parents are in 'panic mode' to balance it all

Working parents are feeling anxious facing a virtual start to public school in most counties.

Christy Bare is a single working mom and nurse with two kids, a rising sixth-grader and rising eighth-grader, at Robious Middle School in Chesterfield County.

She’s scrambling to find a nanny to watch the kids and help them with their virtual schoolwork while she’s at work with Bon Secours Home Health.

“I would have liked to have known earlier. All parents are in panic mode,” Bare said. “I basically have two weeks to figure it out and locate a nanny.”

She and her ex-husband will have to dip into their savings to cover the cost.

Bare described Chesterfield’s spring session of virtual learning as “chaotic” and poorly planned. There was no set schedule, none of the grades counted, and her kids stopped caring. She’s worried that’s going to happen again this fall.

Her daughter has an Individualized Education Plan and needs more time with teachers and studying. Bare said she has no idea how that will be addressed by Chesterfield County Public Schools in the fall.

“I feel really, really overwhelmed right now,” she said. With her job with Bon Secours Home Health, she provides home health care for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses, including COVID-19.

“I really envy the moms who get to work from home. I’m an essential worker. I can’t bring my patients home with me,” she said.

On social media, many working parents are scrambling to find tutors or to assemble learning pods where families will team up to share the burden of at-home learning.

Doug Payne, who works for a local nonprofit, and his wife, Lynn, who works for Capital One, have decided to team up with another family to create a learning pod for their second-graders at Tuckahoe Elementary.

The Paynes have twins, and their neighbors have a daughter. The neighbors will be taking the morning shift every day from 8 to 11:15 a.m. And the Paynes will take over from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“Teaching three 7-year-olds for 2½ hours a day in two households should prove interesting,” Payne said. “We all have fairly demanding jobs and know it’s not going to be easy.”

Others are questioning whether to work at all, like Sofia, a local preschool teacher, who declined to provide her last name because she was afraid it would impact her job.

“My paycheck is pretty small, but it helps with groceries and gas,” she said. Her husband works in a call center at a local company .

They have a third-grader and a sixth-grader in public schools; Sofia wants to keep her preschool job, but she doesn’t know if it’s worth it with impending child care costs due to virtual school.

“I would like to set up something like a co-op or a pod, but it depends on how much it will cost. I have a cousin who’s willing to tutor the kids. But even if we pay her $10 an hour, that’s almost my whole paycheck. Do I stay home and not have an income? Or leave the kids here by themselves? What do you do?” she asked.

She said many teachers at her preschool are quitting to stay at home with their kids because they can’t afford to pay for child care or a nanny.

“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

Others, like Regan Kain and her husband, Scott, are busy turning the family sun room into the family schoolroom in their Chesterfield home.

They have a first-grader at Gordon Elementary and a third-grader at Greenfield Elementary and plan to take turns working with their kids while fielding work calls and turning in projects. She works in sales and her husband is an underwriter. Both have been able to work from home since the pandemic hit, but it’s hard, she said, to juggle both work and child care.

“I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed at the moment,” she said. “We’ve been talking with other parents in the neighborhood. It’s really hard for working parents to keep them engaged and moderated online. Right now, we have no idea what to expect. It’s just wait and see.”

Laura Griffin, clerk of court at Chesterfield Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, said she’s worried that “school is likely to be disastrous this fall.”

She has a 14-year-old daughter at Bailey Bridge Middle School who struggled with online learning in the spring and who she worries will struggle again.

Griffin regularly puts in 10- to 12-hour workdays at her job, and her husband works full time as well.

“I’ve heard school leaders state that every effort will be made so that parents who work can help their children when they get home. So does that mean that after a 10- to 12-hour workday, we should expect to come home, eat a quick meal, then do school for four to five hours? I don’t know that I will have that in me. Every shred of resilience I had in my reserves has been expended during this pandemic,” Griffin said.

William & Mary delays start of in-person classes as COVID-19 ravages Hampton Roads

The College of William & Mary is delaying the start of in-person undergraduate classes after Gov. Ralph Northam put in place new COVID-19 restrictions in Hampton Roads, which has seen a recent surge in cases.

President Katherine Rowe announced Friday that undergraduate classes will still start Aug. 19 remotely, with in-person instruction beginning after Labor Day. The change makes the Williamsburg university the latest in Virginia to alter its reopening plans, as COVID-19 continues to spread across the state. Christopher Newport and Old Dominion universities also announced this week plans to push back their start dates.

Rowe’s announcement comes three days after Northam, citing a rising number of cases in the region, announced new restrictions for Hampton Roads, including a 50-person limit for private and public gatherings. The rest of the state has a 250-person limit under the Phase Three guidelines.

“These appropriate measures aim to slow spread and reduce incidence of COVID-19, which had risen at the end of this month,” Rowe said Friday night in a message to students, faculty and staff. “In light of this evolving public health context, we are adjusting our phased return to campus correspondingly, so as to mitigate risk to the health of students, staff, faculty and neighbors.”

The university is slowing the pace of returning students to campus, Rowe said, with that process running to Labor Day weekend “as to minimize density and reduce circulation on/off campus.”

Incoming freshmen and transfer students will still have August move-in dates, according to Rowe’s message. So will graduate students living in university housing, international students, resident assistants and orientation aides. All other students should delay their return, Rowe said.

“I know how disappointing the shift in arrival on campus will be for many students — who are so looking forward to returning — also how disruptive to families as they plan travel. It is equally disruptive for faculty and staff,” Rowe said. “An enormous amount of work has taken place to prepare our campus community for a successful fall and that work continues in earnest.”

She added: “Yet to fulfill our commitment to safeguarding the health of this community, it is imperative that we respond appropriately to changing pandemic conditions.”

Graduate classes will start as planned by respective schools, Rowe said.

All William & Mary students are required to be tested for the virus before the fall semester, according to the university’s health guidelines. They’ll receive a self-administered, mail-in test kit prior to coming to campus, which W&M said will arrive in time for students to self-administer the test, mail it back along with the required consent form and get test results before they are due to arrive on campus.

The university also announced Friday that it will officially reopen its campus Aug. 5, a slight delay from the initial Aug. 1 open date due to the potential impact of Hurricane Isaias.