In any other year, late July is a time when students, teachers, support staff and families prepare to head back to school.
This is not any other year. We’re wearing personal protective equipment to browse for school supplies. We’re watching our children’s dreams of becoming athletes, musicians or lawyers dashed by the cancellation of football season, concerts or debate competitions. And while juggling jobs and child care was a serious issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re managing our careers and children’s education in the same environment, in some cases without the technological and financial resources to stay afloat.
No matter how school looks this fall, this will not be a normal year. The debate over reopening schools has become so divisive because no option is a complete solution. Each choice carries risks and unknowns that extend beyond anything we have experienced in recent memory.
Virtual learning is no permanent educational panacea for our K-12 students and families. But for safety reasons, all four major school boards in the Richmond region have some kind of online schooling in motion for the fall. After an unexpected and (at times) unprepared spring, we hope the focus shifts toward the immediate challenge: How do we create a better fall for our schools?
In Chesterfield County, a marathon Monday school board meeting ended with a 4-1 vote in favor of starting the year with remote learning — except for language learners and special education students, who would resume in-person services as soon as possible.
Tim Bullis, spokesperson for Chesterfield County Public Schools, told the RTD a transition to a hybrid model would follow. Would that include rotating days of in-person attendance? Have individual school buildings been assessed to determine how many students safely can fit in each classroom? If students arrive on alternating days, how would teachers rotate instructional materials to fit those competing schedules? Do parents have a say in those schedules?
In Henrico County, Superintendent Amy Cashwell recommended a similar virtual start for the first nine weeks of the upcoming school year. The school board will debate and vote Thursday on Cashwell’s proposal.
“For months, we have known that a virtual option would be included for the 2020-21 school year and our staff members have been working long hours to create a redesigned, developmentally appropriate experience that is rich, structured, robust and graded,” Cashwell said in an email to teachers and parents, obtained by The Henrico Citizen. “In other words, this won’t be a collection of online activities. This will be school.”
How will that expectation be delivered? How will the “distance” component of “distance learning” factor into grading and assessments? If a child faces issues with technology during the school day, will there be an on-call help desk? If attendance is taken, how will engagement with lessons be measured from afar? If class sizes vary, how will teachers be expected to budget their time to adequately assess students and deliver individualized feedback?
In Hanover County, the school board unanimously approved two choices for families: continued online learning or full in-person schooling. But parents must make a “binding” choice for the fall, according to a recent letter from Superintendent Michael Gill. “Parents may only change their students’ instructional option at the conclusion of the first semester, if desired,” the letter said.
By instituting a binding choice, does Hanover have systems in place to determine how resources are divided among students in classrooms versus students at home? Are there behavioral and psychological risks to having some children receive in-person instruction while others manage assignments virtually? If a family incurs a change in its circumstances in the middle of the fall, would the binding scenario really still apply?
And earlier this month, the Richmond Public Schools’ (RPS) board voted 8-1 for a fully virtual fall. While four other plans were considered that involved more hybrid and in-person options, teacher groups spoke out about air quality issues and open classroom designs that they feared would raise the risk of contracting COVID-19. How will those issues be addressed during the remote semester? And how will RPS steward its investment in thousands of laptops for students?
“I just want to acknowledge how difficult this is,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said. “As I’ve shared and as many of you have shared, there is no one right solution and no matter what path we take this will cause inconvenience or hardship for some group of people.”
That’s the truth. Through localities’ individual choices, we will learn more about the coronavirus and the challenges of schooling amid a pandemic. The fall certainly won’t be perfect, but it has to be better than the spring.
— Chris Gentilviso