By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board couldn’t give parents the five-day week back-to-school plan they wanted for students, due to space limitations related to social distancing, but the board passed a compromise Tuesday night: a choice between distance learning and a hybrid of distance learning and two days a week in the classroom.
More than 1,700 parents responded to a survey on reopening Accomack schools, Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall said.
Respondents rated how comfortable they were with Accomack schools reopening its doors to students, following guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parents gave separate answers for their children in elementary, middle, and high school, so the number of responses was greater than the number of respondents, Hall noted.
There were 1,049 answers that parents were not comfortable sending their kids back to school, 1189 answers that parents were comfortable but had some concerns for their children’s well-being, and 727 answers that parents were comfortable with few or no concerns.
Only 25% of the responses stated little concern over kids returning to school, but parents in that group appeared to be the most vocal during the public comment period of the July 21 school board meeting.
Parents who supported a regular five-day school week included Nandua Middle School teacher Joy Phillips, who called in-person instruction “invaluable.”
Marce A. Gouldin, of Onley, would prefer a five-day school week but said, “I love that we’re being offered an in-school option,” even if it’s only two days a week.
She pointed out that in some cases, students may be safer in school, because parents who cannot afford childcare may go to work and leave their children at home alone.
Ally Askew, of Accomac, agreed that full-time childcare is a “financial hardship” for many parents and distance learning was “largely unsuccessful” for her children this spring.
Some speakers suggested the distance learning option is essentially home schooling, a task they are not inclined to do as parents with full-time jobs.
Others noted that distance learning is a poor choice for students who lack home internet.
Dawn Craig, an Accomack schools speech-language pathologist, added, “Having internet does not equal the ability to learn virtually.”
A few speakers supported distance learning, at least at the beginning of the school year, including Quintavion Washington, of the Eastern Shore Diverse Coalition of Preachers.
Michele Slusser, who spoke as the incoming president of the Accomack Education Association, a local teacher’s union, supported distance learning.
The next speaker, Nandua High School teacher Lynn Williams, disagreed with the union’s position and said its members “do not speak for all of us.”
Several parents voiced concern about the effects of remote learning on special education students. Carl Bundick noted special education students need “face-to-face interaction” with teachers and asked the school board to consider modifying the school reopening plan to accommodate those students with more time with teachers in person.
The school board approved the hybrid plan in a unanimous vote, meaning parents will choose whether their children start school this fall exclusively as distance learners or attending school in person twice a week.
Superintendent Chris Holland announced via phone July 22 that parents will receive a letter which they must answer by Aug. 6 to choose how their children will receive their education this school year.
The Accomack schools Return to Learn plan is pending approval of the Virginia Department of Education.
Accomack schools plan to reopen after Labor Day, on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Students attending school in person will be divided into two groups. One group will attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other group will attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be reserved for “student support” services.
Hall noted the school division cannot accommodate parents who wish to choose which days their children attend school. Exceptions will be made in rare circumstances, for example, if a parent is a dialysis patient, she said.
The school division will try to ensure that students from the same household attend school on the same days, she added.
On the three days a week those students are not in school, they will complete their assignments at home.
Elementary school students must arrive at school by 8:30 a.m. The instructional day will begin at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m.
Middle and high school students will arrive at school between 7:10 and 7:20 a.m. The instructional day will begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m.
Students in grades K to 12 who participate in distance learning five days a week will participate in video lessons provided by the Virtual Virginia program.
Virtual Virginia will provide content uploaded to programs such as Zoom and Google Meet.
Accomack County Public Schools will add its own digital content, which may include additional videos made by Accomack teachers using webcams provided by the district.
Families can also request assignments on paper for students in grades pre-K to 8.
Students will be assisted by Accomack teachers during set office hours via phone, email, or another mode of communication.
Each student participating in distance learning in grades 3 to 12 will be provided a Google Chromebook. Students in grades pre-K to 2 will receive Chromebooks as needed.
Families will be offered training on using the technology before school opens.
WiFi is available in the parking lots of all 11 Accomack schools, and the school division will set up 10 additional WiFi hotspots in locations with the greatest need.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce will partner with local agencies to provide free WiFi in 14 locations.
All Accomack students, whether they learn from home three or five days a week, will receive letter grades in accordance with the school division’s grading policy.
Sanitation and Health
One of the top concerns of parents who took the back-to-school survey was frequent cleaning and sanitizing in schools, Hall said.
Accomack County Public Schools has hired additional custodians to handle the extra cleaning duties – one at each Chincoteague school and two at each mainland school.
The school division obtained 25 electrostatic sprayers, which will be used for nightly sanitization of classrooms. Buses will be sanitized after each run.
Buses will make multiple trips daily so that students can be spaced six feet apart on buses. Students from the same household will be seated together. All students will be required to wear face coverings on the bus. Students’ temperatures will be taken as they exit the bus, before they enter school.
All school employees must complete a daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms before entering the workplace.
All students and school employees will be required to wear face coverings inside school buildings, but mask breaks will be scheduled.
Hand sanitizer dispensers will be located at student entrances in each school, and plexiglass barriers have been installed in each school office or reception area.
All Accomack schools will have ultraviolet water coolers for students and staff to refill water bottles. Ultraviolet light kills germs after each use. The coolers will supply water to select drinking fountains, and other water fountains will be closed.
Each school will have two nurses stations, one for sick children and one for healthy children who, for example, need to take regular medications.