By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board unanimously approved the updated Return To Learn COVID-19 mitigation plan for the 2022-2023 school year as presented by Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall Tuesday night.
She called it the “return to normal – as normal as possible plan,” acknowledging that some COVID-19 measures will remain, but mostly instruction will occur as it did before the pandemic.
Hall highlighted practices that will return to schools, such as using lockers in middle and high school, holding small-group instruction for reading and math in elementary school, and taking field trips.
Parents will be allowed in school buildings without an appointment; for example, they may walk their children into school in the mornings.
Ceremonies and programs will be held normally, although Hall noted this spring’s elementary and middle school graduations likely will be ticketed events.
COVID-19 community levels will continue to be tracked, but there will be no more contact tracing except in the case of an outbreak of COVID-19, said Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin.
Schools will continue the practice of sending a letter of notification to parents if there is a case of COVID-19 in their child’s class, Hall said.
Certain health and safety measures will continue, such as spraying down buses and classrooms with sanitizer. However, neither wearing face masks nor maintaining three feet of social distance will be required, she said.
There is one exception to the face mask policy: if a student tests positive for COVID-19, the student must stay home for five days, and for the first five days upon returning to school, the student must wear a mask.
If the student’s parent does not want the student to wear a mask, the parent can opt to keep the student home for the whole 10-day period.
Hall reported that after the school mask mandate was first lifted (in mid-February, after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law a bill allowing parents to exempt their children from school mask mandates), about 85% of Accomack students voluntarily wore masks in school. After about a month, that number began to dwindle.
She reported no bullying had occurred due to any student wearing or not wearing a mask.
Martin reported Accomack’s COVID-19 community level is low, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
As of May 17, Accomack had four new cases of COVID-19 and a seven-day average of five cases per day.
Cases of COVID-19 in Accomack schools included two teachers, two staff members, and 16 students.
Martin said there has been an uptick in COVID-19 cases but transmission remains low.
The updated Return To Learn plan includes the school day starting and ending times for next year:
Elementary students will arrive at school at 8:30 a.m., with the instructional day beginning at 8:45 a.m. and ending at 3:45 p.m.
Middle and high school students will arrive at school between 7:10 a.m. and 7:20 a.m., with the instructional day beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m.
Transportation Supervisor Paul Brabazon noted the differing schedules will enable bus drivers to do tiered runs again next year, which helps the school division address the bus driver shortage by reducing the number of drivers needed.
The term “tiered run” refers to a bus driver making two separate trips every morning (and afternoon) to transport students who start their school days at different times, allowing both groups of students to arrive at school on time.
A “double run” refers to a bus driver making two trips every morning to a school or schools on the same schedule, often resulting in some students arriving early and others arriving late.
Tiered runs nearly eliminate the need for substitute bus drivers because the substitutes are “built in,” Brabazon said. Middle and high school bus drivers can help out elementary school bus drivers and vice versa.
The Accomack schools transportation department is in “excellent shape” compared to elsewhere in the region such as Newport News, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and Hampton, each of which has a shortage of more than 100 bus drivers, Brabazon said.
Every school bus driver in those localities is already doing two or three tiered runs per day, and some of the students don’t get home until 6 p.m. All Accomack students who ride the school bus are home by about 4:45 p.m., he said.
Bus driver shortages in other localities negatively impact Accomack when those schools can’t send their students to the Eastern Shore for athletic competitions and Accomack school buses have to make extra trips across the Chesapeake Bay so the students can compete, he noted.
Finance Director Beth Onley said Accomack has 45 bus drivers who do daily tiered runs, and Brabazon added that 23 additional drivers would be needed if the school division returned to the single-run busing system.
Those 45 bus drivers earn higher base pay for the tiered runs, which also increases their retirement benefits, Onley said.
Brabazon said the tiered runs enable school bus drivers to earn good, living wages.
The tiered runs also mean fewer school buses are needed in the fleet, so the buses can be put on a 45-day inspection rotation instead of being inspected every 180 days.
This saves money because parts like tires and brakes can be changed much closer to the actual end of their useful life instead of being changed early to pass the next inspection that’s not due until months later. In the first year of the tiered bus runs, the school division saved about $100,000 in parts, Onley said.
Juneteenth and Summer Work Week
Superintendent Chris Holland proposed Accomack schools should observe the Juneteenth state holiday this year on Friday, June 17, instead of Monday, June 20, which will be the first day of summer school. The school board unanimously approved that proposal.
However, his proposal for 12-month employees to work four 10-hour days every week this summer instead of five eight-hour days did not escape scrutiny.
Holland said he wanted to show employees appreciation for their hard work and noted the proposal will save money since the HVAC and other systems will be running one less day a week.
School board members Edward Taylor and Janet Turner objected to the proposal because, according to their understanding of the proposal as written, each 10-hour day included 9 hours and 20 minutes of actual work time, resulting in a work week of about 37 hours, not 40 hours.
Over the course of a summer, that adds up to about $71,000 paid for time in which employees were not actually working, Taylor estimated.
“This is taxpayer money, and we can’t just give people off because they’re nice or they’ve worked hard at prom,” Turner said.
Holland’s proposal included daily work hours of 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; both Turner and Taylor suggested changing the start time to 7 a.m. to get each employee’s actual hours worked closer to 40 hours a week.
A motion was made and seconded for 12-month employees to work 10 hours a day, four days a week over the summer; details about the breakdown of the work day were not provided in the motion.
The motion passed, with Taylor and Turner abstaining.
About 133 employees will be impacted, and the four-day work weeks will run from June 20 to Aug. 18.