Sean Jones, The Progress-Index
PRINCE GEORGE - In a school district where parents and students are ideologically split about how classes should resume in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Prince George County’s school board has rendered a plan that includes both in-person and virtual learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
A survey sent to parents in July showed that 51% preferred an all-virtual option, while the other 49% wanted to return in-person. Prince George County Public Schools “Return to Learn Plan” uses a hybrid method, where half of the school district can learn at home, and the other half will come back into reduced class sizes with increased social distancing requirements.
Prince George is the third Tri-Cities school to opt for in-person learning. A majority of schools in Virginia have opted for hybrid returns, though the state’s largest school systems have decided to return in all-virtual settings. No school has 100% in-person instruction.
School Board Chair Chris Johnson said teacher survey responses stuck out to him most when making his decision to include an in-person option for instruction. Seventy-eight percent of teachers said they preferred an in-person return to teaching.
“When you look, that eight out ten of our staff said that regardless of the pandemic, I need to be [in school] because I'm child-first, I want to take care of the children. I applaud our staff and our faculty for their dedication,” Johnson said.
School Board members Rob Eley and Sherry Taylor also expressed their desire to return children to in-person classes as much as possible.
Sherry said she worries about child development as regular daily social interactions increasingly take place online.
“We’re becoming a more isolated society. We have less interpersonal skills and relationships. More interaction on social media than face-to-face. I feel like this is the downfall of our society,” Sherry told the school board. “Much more happens in this brick and mortar [school environment] than learning in a textbook. There’s a lot of developmental social skills going on. There are children’s needs in our community we meet with food, medical and just to keep an eye on our children to make sure they’re safe.”
“It’s not going to be easy. What you went to school to learn to teach, you’re going to have to learn to change it, and I applaud you for it. It’s a new way of life to you,” Eley said to teachers.
And to families: “We’re going to continue to strive to give your children the best education that they can get,” he added.
All Virginia school systems have to follow six-foot social distancing guidelines mandated by the state government, which limits the total number of students schools can legally accommodate per building.
Virginia is now in Phase III of it’s reopening plan, which allows in-person instruction. Should the Governor’s Office decide to push the state back into Phase II, in-person classes would be suspended and schools would need to push back into all-virtual learning.
“During this time our guiding principle for our Return to Learn plan is we sought to bring back as many of our students as we could, as safely as we can, with the resources of the school division to support,” said PGCS Superintendent Lisa Pennycuff.
Students opting for in-person classes this fall will return to school four days per week, Monday through Thursday. Friday is scheduled as a virtual learning and support day, where teachers will get professional development for virtual teaching and have Zoom meetings or phone calls to keep in touch with distance learners.
The Hybrid A/B block schedule has students taking four classes per semester, instead of all seven at once. Semester one will be blocks 1, 2, 4 and 6. Next semester, they will take the second half of block 1, plus blocks 3, 5 and 7. PGCS said this schedule decreases social mixing and potential virus transmission.
Elementary-level students will have the same classes daily, resembling a traditional schooling environment.
Virtual students at all levels will follow the exact same curriculum as their in-person classmates. About 10-14 students will learn in the classroom, while another 10-14 students will learn virtually from the same teacher. Lessons can be live-streamed and recorded to use later. PGCS will also continue on the same grading scale.
“Children at the high school will belong to classrooms already. That will give us opportunity throughout the year that if we see a student is struggling with virtual learning, we will be able to offer that student a spot [in the classroom],” Pennycuff said.
Though nearly 87% of students responded to PGCS about their preferred return method, about 800 students didn’t. Those 800 students were automatically opted into virtual learning. PGCS says they are reaching out to those families, and prioritizing children with disabilities and english language learners for in-person learning.
In-addition to the classroom, students will have to be physically distanced on buses. Vehicles that can normally fit more than 70 students will be reduced to a capacity of about 14. Children will be staggered between aisle and window seats, and buses will be regularly sanitized.
Should a child test positive for COVID-19, they will have to quarantine for 14 days and use virtual learning until they are able to return. Additionally, per the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, should any child, teacher or staff member come within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, they will have to quarantine for 14 days.
Pennycuff says the school district is strongly recommending masks for everyone who does not have a health condition - following guidance from the CDC and Virginia Department of Health.
“We have been using the words strongly encouraged or highly recommended because there are exceptions that make it difficult for some people to wear those,” Pennycuff said. “But we need to be clear, that that is what we want everyone who is able to do, to do.”
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