Kelly Cannon tried to become a teacher.

When Westover Hills Elementary in Richmond shut down in mid-March — first for two weeks, then for the rest of the academic year — she ordered teaching manuals to help her kindergartener keep up with math and watched YouTube videos at night on how to teach reading.

It wasn’t working.

Cannon said she cried tears of relief Monday when Richmond Public Schools launched its virtual learning plan, a curriculum nicknamed “RPS@Home” that features coursework for students from preschool through high school.

“As a parent who’s at home with children 24/7 under the stay-at-home order, you take on a lot of different roles,” Cannon said. “We’re now our children’s best friend, playmate, confidant, partner in crime when they want to have adventures. But also being their teacher is a stretch.”

With the Virginia Department of Education allowing local school systems to let on-track students graduate or move up despite being out of school for months, school districts across Virginia are trying to ensure students don’t fall behind.

Virtual education plans that local districts are releasing try to return structure to learning, offering a prepared curriculum that parents like Cannon can use while giving students flexibility in grades as they and their families deal with a pandemic.

After Gov. Ralph Northam announced March 23 that schools would close for the rest of the academic year, the state Education Department encouraged but did not require districts to offer distance learning. Federally mandated state accountability tests in reading, math and science have already been canceled for the year, but Virginia lawmakers must still take action to cancel writing and social studies exams.

Schools may offer summer school to students who couldn’t receive teaching during the closure; adjust the current school calendar or the 2020-21 school calendar; or incorporate lessons students would have learned this year. A state Education Department spokesman said the agency doesn’t have data on how many districts across the state are pursuing each option.

With a real teacher on the other side of the screen Monday, teaching reading, math and science, Cannon said her son learned more in one day “than I think I taught him in three weeks.”

She resumed being “his helper and supporter and encourager instead of being his task master and floundering, honestly.”

Districts are trying to address underlying issues that could frustrate distance learning, distributing laptops and internet hotspots to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access, for example. Whether their plans will reach every student, including those from historically disadvantaged communities, remains to be seen.

Dale Chu, a Colorado-based education consultant who has written about the early end to the school year and its impacts, said remote learning plans differ across the county, but most school systems are still looking to offer some type of instruction.

“We’re still trying to get a real good handle on this,” Chu said. “It’s a little bit like looking at a mountain through a keyhole.”

Here’s what school systems around the Richmond area are doing.

Chesterfield County

Chesterfield County Public Schools wants students in middle and high school to spend up to three or four hours a day learning.

Superintendent Merv Daugherty told families last week that the amount of time students should be learning differs based on grade level, with preschool students through second-graders getting one to two hours of instruction; third- through fifth-grade students two to three hours; and sixth-graders through seniors getting three to four hours.

Daugherty said the timing is in line with recommendations from the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.

The superintendent said teachers have been encouraged to follow “reasonable workload expectations” for students and to figure out what still needs to be taught, among other things.

Work assigned from April 14 through year’s end won’t be graded, Daugherty said, in line with what the Virginia Department of Education has recommended. More information from students’ teachers is expected between April 14 and April 20.

Hanover County

The Hanover County school system is expecting students, depending on grade level, to do about five to 15 hours of school work each week through the end of May.

Superintendent Michael Gill told families that instruction for elementary students will emphasize supporting growth in reading and math as well as strengthening readiness skills for the next grade level. The work for middle and high school students will focus on completion of coursework.

All students will be required to complete three assignments before May 29 in order to qualify for grade advancement or class credits. The deadline for seniors is May 22. Teachers will evaluate performance by a simple pass or fail measure. The assessments will be used to certify completion of a credit-bearing course and to evaluate a student’s readiness for promotion.

Final grades will generally be determined by calculating the average of first-, second- and third-quarter grades, but teachers will be allowed to give additional assignments to let students improve their grade. Poor performance on any assignments given after March 13 will not lower grades.

Henrico County

Remote instruction for Henrico students will resume Tuesday, but final grades will also be based on performance through the first three quarters of the school year.

High school students in credit-bearing classes, however, will still be required to complete coursework for the final quarter. Middle and high school students will have an option to complete additional assignments by April 24 to improve their grades.

Henrico Superintendent Amy Cashwell told families that plans for continuing education to earn credits and meet graduation requirements will begin on May 6.

“Some of it is considered optional for students. Other parts may be required, depending on their grade level and circumstances,” she said.

Kate Garitz, the mother of two students at Tuckahoe Middle School in Henrico, said she thinks state officials did not do enough to prepare school districts for the closings.

She said she understands it’s a difficult situation and that local school leaders are doing the best they can, but still worries that a lack of expectations and direction from some teachers has made it hard to keep students focused on retention and learning.

Garitz has expected her kids to do about three hours of school work each day. But with only a few assignments, she and some of her parent friends are beginning to talk about how they can supplement what’s being assigned to them so that they’re ready for next year.

“When there’s not structure ... I feel like you’re going to see more disparity in school performance in the next school year,” she said. “I honestly don’t know where my kids lie on that curve, but I think at the start of school year, there will be some students who excel because their family kept them engaged.”

Richmond

Like Henrico, Richmond is requiring high school students to finish a virtual learning module in order to receive credit for the classes they were enrolled in at the time of the school closures.

The work won’t be graded, Superintendent Jason Kamras said. Neither will work done by preschool students nor those in elementary or middle school, who aren’t required to finish any virtual learning lessons.

Kamras, however, called the lessons “a great way to make sure students are prepared for next year.”

The work will be hosted on the RPS@Home learning platform, which features daily instructional videos led by teachers and links to other learning materials, among other things. It’s organized by grade level and weekday.

“We wanted to make sure that we offered continued learning, in particular the most essential content that students would otherwise be missing at this time,” said chief academic officer Tracy Epp.

“Given how much families and students are grappling with, there’s just so much that every individual family is dealing with, not to mention the general stress and anxiety of this situation. We wanted anything we did to be value-add but not create any kind of additional stress.”

High school seniors who were on track to graduate before the closures also don’t need to finish any extra work, Kamras said, but seniors who weren’t passing one or more courses needed for graduation must finish relevant work remotely that won’t be graded in order to receive credit.

For third-quarter grades, elementary school students on track to pass will get an “S” for satisfactory or an “N” for needs improvement. Middle and high school students will be judged based on the work they’d done before the closures.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

State Government Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers Virginia politics and policy. He previously covered education. A northern New York native and Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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