RICHMOND, Va. -- The Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. But for students and families, the coronavirus pandemic brings unanswered questions as to what the school year will look like in the fall after in-person instruction was canceled this spring.
School leaders across the region are brainstorming and working through a litany of considerations for when it is safe to open and what instruction will look like.
Absolutely nothing is set in stone yet, multiple school officials pointed out, as the course of the virus is still unknown.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said his district is considering two main options: a virtual opening or an in-person start to the academic year.
The virtual option could start before Labor Day and help ease students back into learning, Kamras said.
"We’d have teachers teaching and work being graded and all that sort of thing. That would follow then by an in-person opening at some point, and we’re not sure when that is,” Kamras said.
The in-person option could not begin before Labor Day, Kamras said.
“Even with that, there’s a chance we’d have to close at some point in the fall or the winter due to a spike in the virus,” he said. “Even with the in-person option, we’re planning to have a long term virtual option ready.”
Richmond Schools is also considering the possibility of a calendar that looks more like a year-round schooling, although Kamras said the financial considerations would be significant.
No matter what reopening looks like, the loss of instructional time during the spring will create learning gaps for many students when the academic year resumes.
“We know from the research that kids lose some learning over a normal summer, and this is nothing normal at all. There’s a likelihood that kids will be significantly behind even though we’ve provided all kinds of supports,” Kamras said. “We’re planning for a lot of support to help catch kids up. That’s all kinds of things from reading intervention to math intervention, all sorts of support. We’re also thinking a lot about social and emotional supports. We know it’s been a tough time for kids.”
School officials from Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover said they too are mulling over multiple opening scenarios, but are still waiting for guidance from state education officials to steer their decision making.
Last week, officials from Henrico Schools laid out as many as five options to the school board. A district spokesperson sent the following synopsis of the presentation:
We're working on at least five possibilities for the fall of 2020, all of which will have to include a variety of new safety protocols.
Option A is that all students return to campus, and we adjust our classroom pacing to address content that was missed in the spring.
Option B continues our remote/distance learning in a bolstered and enhanced manner, expanding upon the emergency measures that were put into place immediately following the March closure.
Option C involves students returning to campus for several weeks or months at a time, which would then be interrupted by periods of remote learning.
Option D involves some students learning on campus, while others learn remotely, perhaps alternating days in order for the school division to maintain social distancing guidelines.
Option E involves some students learning on campus and others learning remotely out of choice or necessity, without alternating days.
All of these possibilities require a great deal of additional thought and planning related to the re-opening of public schools, especially considering that we won't know for sure what the health and safety guidelines and restrictions might be in September.
While we just presented these options to our School Board late last week, our students and families can expect us to be directly communicating additional information in the near future.
A spokesperson for Chesterfield County Schools said they were waiting for guidance from the Governor’s Office on how to proceed.
“We are eager to see our students back in our hallways, and we are working through a wide variety of scenarios in anticipation of reopening in the fall,” a spokesperson for Hanover County Schools said. “In all scenarios, our primary focus will be upon providing the best possible education and support to our students and families.”
Hanover Schools sent a long list of items that provides “just a glimpse into some of the many considerations that are going into our decision-making”:
- Opening scenarios
- Instructional scenarios
- Blended (in-person and virtual)
- Social distancing and cleaning requirement
- Common Areas
- Physical education
- Performing and visual arts
- Equity considerations
- Special Education services
- Access to devices and/or high speed internet
- Access to meals
Social Distancing in School?
School buildings and the established procedures provide a difficult situation to manage both social distancing and disinfection practices.
The sheer number of people within even small school buildings creates unique cleaning challenges, and teaching students of all ages to maintain a safe social distance could prove challenging.
“That is a tricky one for schools. I don’t know if you’ve ever hung out around eight-year-olds or ten-year-olds or 12-year-old, but they like to hang out together. And really, that’s one of the most beautiful parts of school: kids interacting with each other,” Kamras said. “My preference is that if social distancing was still in effect, we don’t bring kids back into classrooms because it would be incredibly difficult to put in place. And how do you enforce it? I don’t want to be in the position of disciplining kids, even suspending kids, because they wanted to give each other a high-five or sit next to each other or talk to each other.”
The Governor’s Plan
The Governor’s Office recently appointed a working group of education officials to chart out the process of reopening schools later this year. Kamras said he knows many of the educators on that team and is hopeful their guidance will include specifics and clarity.
“When, from the state’s perspective given the science, is it okay to bring teachers and kids back into buildings? What are the exact criteria we should be looking for community by community? And then what will be the supports in place by the state to help make that happen,” he said.
Visit your school district’s homepage for more resources and information on how students, families, and students can get assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.