By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County Public Schools will not take a “one size fits all” approach to education when classes resume in the fall amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Instead, parents will get to choose one of two learning options that will work best for their children.
It will be “a drastic departure from how schools have operated for the last 50 years,” said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.
Option 1 is a hybrid of in-person instruction and online learning. Students in families who choose this option will be divided into two groups, Group A and Group B.
Group A will attend school in person on Mondays and Thursdays and Group B will attend in person on Tuesdays and Fridays, leaving Wednesdays for deep cleaning using hydrostatic sprayers.
Wednesdays will also be open to teachers for lesson planning, professional development, and communication with parents.
(Exceptions are the week of Aug. 31, when Group A will attend on Monday and Wednesday and Group B will attend on Tuesday and Thursday, and the week of Labor Day, Sept. 7, when Group A will attend on Tuesday and Thursday and Group B will attend on Wednesday and Friday.)
Option 2 is distance learning only and requires most students to have reliable internet at home.
NCPS is equipped with online learning devices for all students in grades 3 to 12 and has ordered devices tailored to the learning needs of students in grades pre-K to 2.
Assistant Superintendent Christine Hall said the devices for the younger students are similar to LeapFrog learning tablets, contain about 4,000 reading and math activities, and do not require an internet connection.
It was necessary to offer an option for in-person learning because about 50% of Northampton students have limited or no internet access at home, “a glaring problem for us,” Lawrence said.
With students in class only two days a week, class sizes can be cut roughly in half and desks can be spaced six feet apart for social distancing. Each class will be limited to 12 students.
Face masks will be required for students age 10 and up, worn when social distancing is not possible.
Common areas will be closed, and schedules will be coordinated so that no two classes are in the hallway at the same time.
Students will stay in the classroom for specials like art, music, and library. Teachers will come to the classroom and bring the materials and technology needed to complete the lesson. Physical education will be held outside.
Students who participate in distance learning in grades 3 to 12 will receive instruction through one or more of the following programs: Virtual Virginia, WHRO Education Sources, and Odysseyware. The programs can be accessed on any computer device provided by Northampton schools.
The remote lessons are presented by certified teachers, and each student will be assigned to a Northampton teacher who will guide the student through the distance learning process.
Teachers will have virtual office hours during which students may contact them by phone, email, Google chats, or another means of communication.
The WHRO program is particularly helpful for English language learners because the lessons can be automatically translated into the student’s home language, Lawrence said.
One advantage of distance learning is that students can work at their own pace. If students don’t master the material, the program will not allow them to advance to the next unit, and the teacher will reset the current unit.
Repeating lessons is also helpful because “sometimes kids have the basic skills but lack the confidence,” Lawrence said.
Students who learn the lessons quickly can work ahead as well.
Northampton students can participate in distance learning at no cost to parents, and students get the same privileges as their peers who attend school in person, such as joining clubs and attending the prom, Lawrence emphasized.
Students will have their temperatures taken twice a day; once when they exit the bus and again later in the day.
Each school will have two clinics to keep sick children separated from healthy children.
Classrooms will be deep-cleaned on Wednesdays and Fridays with a hydrostatic sprayer system, the effects of which last up to five days. School buses will also be disinfected with the sprayers twice a week.
Bus transportation will be Northampton schools’ “biggest operational dilemma,” even with only half of the student population attending school in one day, Lawrence said.
Students must wear face masks on the bus and practice social distancing. Only one student may occupy each seat, with the exception of siblings, who will sit together.
Lawrence reminded parents to call their children’s schools as soon as possible to let them know whether or not bus transportation will be needed.
He also reminded parents to register their children for school now if they haven’t already done so. “Don’t wait until the first day,” he advised.
All school breakfasts and lunches served on campus will be eaten in the classroom to maintain social distance.
Each student will get five breakfasts and lunches each week. For example, on Monday afternoon, students will take home their meals for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Students who participate only in distance learning can have a parent or guardian pick up their weekly meals at a designated day, time, and location.
Northampton County Public Schools has applied for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Eligibility Provision, also known as the “free lunch for all” program, and Lawrence is confident the division submitted a “strong application.”
NCPS expects an answer from USDA around the first week of August, and if the application is approved, all school meals served this school year will be free to all students, regardless of their household income.
The county’s homeschooled students are now welcome to participate in Northampton schools sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities as they become available later in the school year, Lawrence announced.
No fall sports are planned at this time, as school divisions are still waiting for the Virginia High School League to decide how school athletics programs may operate amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Future of Distance Learning
“Education’s going to look different from here on out,” Hill said. That could be a good thing.
A new emphasis on distance learning could positively impact Northampton County Public Schools even after the pandemic is over.
Online learning enables Northampton schools to offer a wider range of courses in advanced or specialized subjects, like Chinese, Hill said.
It could mean continuation of education for students who miss school often due to chronic health issues or behavior problems. Northampton schools already have experience using online learning for students in the division’s alternative education program, Lawrence said.
It means learning can continue when teachers miss work and maybe even when school is closed for inclement weather, Lawrence added.
Instead of completing review work, students can participate in online lessons, guided by a substitute teacher or someone at home.