POWHATAN – The July 28 meeting that saw the Powhatan County School Board voting 3-2 in favor of a combination virtual and hybrid model for the start of the new school year was an information-packed meeting that covered a wide range of topics.
The meeting included both a presentation from Virginia Department of Health professionals and a comprehensive look at Powhatan County Public Schools’ proposed approach to return to school by Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent.
With a plan now chosen by the board, the weeks leading up to the first day of school on Aug. 24 will be spent ironing out details. Jones made it clear that everyone should be prepared for a fluid upcoming school year as the division learns and makes necessary adjustments.
Here are some of the highlights of what the division currently knows:
* For the first three weeks of school, students in prekindergarten through third grade will follow the same AA/BB schedule (half go to school Monday and Tuesday and half Thursday and Friday). Wednesday will be an intervention and support day. First few weeks teach safety guidelines and practices.
* Starting the week of Sept. 14, preK to third grade begin face-to-face instruction five days a week.
* For the first nine weeks, students in grades four to 12 attend in-person classes on an AA (Monday, Tuesday) or BB (Thursday, Friday) schedule with Wednesday as intervention day. On four day weeks, there is no intervention day. Before the end of the first nine weeks, the health services team will decide if more students can return to school full-time.
* Families with students in different grade levels will be placed in the same AA or BB schedule.
* Schools may elect to provide face-to-face instruction for students with disabilities, including private placements, with physical distancing. Students will only attend such programs if the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team agrees it is appropriate and with parent consent.
* Families that choose virtual learning will commit to stay with this model through the end of the first semester on Dec. 18.
* Model involves a consistent daily schedule that will provide engaging online instruction, including virtual two-way interactions with teachers and classmates. All classes, including electives and resource classes, will be offered virtually.
* Students will participate in both scheduled real-time learning through video conferencing sessions and independent learning experiences. The division is working on guidelines for the maximum time students will be in front of a screen, depending on their grade level. There will be built-in breaks and an hour for lunch.
* The schools will be taking attendance daily and grades will be assigned as if students were in a physical classroom.
* Other features include: instructional support and enrichment activities provided through regularly scheduled virtual sessions; opportunities for in-person instruction and academic intervention as needed, and physical activity incorporated into the school day for prekindergarten through eighth-graders.
* Students enrolled in full virtual learning will also be able to participate in extra or co-curricular activities and have access to meals provided by the school system through a weekly pickup system.
Jones shared the results of surveys sent to both families of students and educators to get a sense of their preferred return-to-school model. The staff survey saw 83.3 percent participation with 514 responses. The family survey had 2,406 families respond, representing 3,696 students (85.4 percent).
The two surveys asked what would happen if the school board chose a full return to the classroom. On the parent survey, the responses were: 71.4 percent full-time return; 23.5 percent virtual learning; 4 percent other; 1 percent homeschooling, and 0.1 percent private school.
The teacher response was: 69.7 percent said they will return full-time on site; 21 percent asked to be considered as a full-time virtual learning instructor, and 9.2 percent said other.
When asked about what they would do if the school board selected a hybrid plan, the parent response was: 76.8 percent hybrid, 19 percent virtual; 1.3 percent homeschooling; 1.1 percent private school, and 1.9 percent other. Among teachers, the response to a hybrid plan was: 77.1 percent said they will return full-time on site; 13.3 percent wanted to be full-time virtual learning instructors, and 9.6 percent said other.
Regarding teachers having their wishes to teach virtually granted because of concerns or comfort level, Jones said first consideration would be given to those with health risks. The division would try to accommodate others with concerns such as a high-risk family member but he couldn’t guarantee it. Depending on the demand and the subject matter, some teachers may be asked to teach both virtual and in-person classes.
Parents were also asked if they would transport their children to school daily if the school board chose a full return or a hybrid plan. The responses were: 46 percent said yes; 35.3 percent said no, and 18.7 percent said other.
Buses were a big issue at previous meetings as everyone wondered how they would manage social distancing while being fiscally responsible. Based on how many families are willing to transport their students, Jones said the division has received approval from the health district to have one child per seat.
Parents were asked if they would need Wi-Fi hotspot if virtual learning was necessary. In response, 75.06 percent said no and 24.9 percent said yes.
Parents were also asked if they had internet speed fast enough to support virtual learning, which is 25Mbp download, 3Mbps upload. In the response, 77.1 percent said yes and 22.9 percent said no.
The board heard a public health presentation from Dr. Alexander Samuel, health director of the Chesterfield Health District of the Virginia Department of Health, and Brad Porter, district epidemiologist.
Samuel talked about how new COVID-19 is in terms of human exposure, which means health professionals are constantly learning new data and reevaluating their positions on the virus, its transmission, prevention methods, and treatment.
“The spread of the virus is clearly linked to human interaction, meaning that mitigation strategies like social distancing, when practiced, do work,” he said.
Currently, Powhatan is in the Central Region, which is considered at a moderate burden level with a steady, or unchanging, transmission direction.
As of Aug. 1, Powhatan has seen 127 positive cases of COVID-19 with nine hospitalizations and four deaths, according to the health department website.
In Powhatan the highest number of cases of COVID-19 were in ages 40 and above, although there have been cases of patients in their 20s and 30s and in the 0 to 19 age group, Porter said.
While much about the virus is still unknown, some of what health officials do know includes: children don’t contract the virus at the same rate adults do; children are more likely to have mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, and hospitalization and more severe outcomes are linked to underlying chronic disease, Samuel said. However, health officials do not know the role of children in transmitting the virus, he said.
Samuel added that most adults have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, and seniors ages 65 plus and with chronic medical conditions are at the highest risk.
Steps that can be taken to reduce risk include: staff and students staying home when ill; social distancing with a goal of 6 feet when possible and a minimum of 3 feet with a face covering when not; encouraging face coverings for all ages; teaching hand hygiene and establishing good routines, and environmental cleaning such as regularly wiping down high-contact surfaces.
The division has already asked families to screen students at home for symptoms before school. In his presentation, Samuel mentioned the staff doing additional screening. Jones said the division reached out to Samuel the next day for additional guidance and he responded that current guidelines do not do not recommend schools doing symptom screening.
Samuel didn’t recommend a minimum age for face coverings but said it is recommended when “developmentally appropriate.” Safety measures should be added in consideration of working with younger children.
PCPS’s health plan has to be approved by the health department before a school division can return to in-person instruction, he said.
Samuel also talked a little about the division’s process if someone tests positive for COVID-19 or there is an outbreak. The school’s health plan, which can be found at http://www.powhatan.k12.va.us/, has a full description of steps a school will take if that happens.
Regarding creating a safe environment, Jones laid out several strategies the division will implement to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 including: routine cleaning with increased frequency and use of EPA-registered disinfectant cleaners; additional disinfecting and cleaning in highly used areas; hand sanitizing stations throughout common areas; a minimum of one new custodial position at each building through CARES Act funds, and reallocating some evening staff to focus on cleaning during the day.
Each building will have face coverings for every staff member; disposable masks in adult and youth sizes; an ample supply of hand soap and paper towels; new hand dryers (middle and high schools); hand sanitizing stations; hydro-static sprayers, and signage about social distancing, masks, hand washing, etc. Each classroom will also be equipped with hand sanitizer; sanitizing canisters; sanitizing spray, and paper towels.
Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, raised concerns about Service Solutions, the company contracted to clean all school facilities, which had issues even before the pandemic. She wanted a way the division can ensure cleaners are doing their jobs well for the safety of students and staff.
At the facilities and HVAC system level, some of the measures included: increasing the frequency of filter changes on all systems from once a quarter to every two months; having exhaust fans run for 24 hours a day, seven days a week; maintaining a humidity of 40 percent or more; introducing additional fresh air into buildings through increasing outdoor airflow through HVAC systems, and running ventilation units in occupied mode a few hours on the weekend.
Jones laid out how the three different return to school models would affect transportation employee needs. In all cases, masks would be required for students and drivers unless there was a physical reason they couldn’t wear one.
With a full return, all drivers would be needed. They would transport 22 students per bus, which would mean an estimated 80 buses needed at 73 percent ridership and 68 buses at 60 percent ridership.
With the hybrid option, all drivers would still be needed. Social distancing would be based on the model selected. This would mean 10 to 22 students per bus depending on the 3 to 6-foot difference. Drivers not on a route would deliver meals to students on distance learning days and assist with bus disinfecting and cleaning.
With a virtual classroom model, drivers would be used for small group training on multiple days; delivering meals to students; assisting operations and maintenance to prepare classrooms for full return; offering childcare for staff, and delivering students who require face-to-face instruction or intervention.
Whether it is the days students are at home on the hybrid model or in cases where short-term virtual classroom is necessary all week, lack of internet access is a significant problem in Powhatan.
Jones talked about putting two additional school buses with wireless internet access out in the county. Cellular internet hotspots will be available again for checkout. Pocahontas Landmark Center will have a dedicated space and schedule for students to access the internet.
The division will also identify times when schools are open after hours for internet access.
Jones pointed out that, unlike in the spring, schools are not completely closed and off limits for making arrangements for students without reliable internet.
The school system made major software and hardware purchases in preparation of the new school year. Some of the changes include the Schoology system being used by all students instead of only the middle and high school students; purchasing more teacher webcams; adding additional Chromebooks to help move toward a potential one-to-one program with the elementary schools, and purchasing additional hotspots for teachers and students.
n For the first three weeks of school, students in prekindergarten through third grade will follow the same AA/BB schedule (half go to school Monday and Tuesday and half Thursday and Friday). Wednesday will be an intervention and support day. First few weeks teach safety guidelines and practices.
n Starting the week of Sept. 14, preK to third grade begin face-to-face instruction five days a week.
n For the first nine weeks, students in grades four to 12 attend in-person classes on an AA (Monday, Tuesday) or BB (Thursday, Friday) schedule with Wednesday as intervention day. On four day weeks, there is no intervention day. Before the end of the first nine weeks, the health services team will decide if more students can return to school full-time.
n Families with students in different grade levels will be placed in the same AA or BB schedule.
n Schools may elect to provide face-to-face instruction for students with disabilities, including private placements, with physical distancing. Students will only attend such programs if the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team agrees it is appropriate and with parent consent.