When Culpeper public-school classes resume in slightly more than three weeks, they will little resemble what children, parents and teachers knew before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Culpeper County Public School administrators made that crystal clear to the School Board on Monday night before the board voted to resume in-person classes using a “blended” model of classroom and online instruction.
“Whatever image you have in mind, the reality will look vastly different,” Dr. Russell Houck, the school division’s student services director, told the board.
Students will be split into two groups to attend in-person classes two days per week, then do assignments at home and engage in online learning the other three days of the week.
The division’s 8,000 students will go to school either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, enabling staff to put enough physical distance between them in classrooms and hallways to stem the spread of COVID-29. Otherwise, with the guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control, not all of Culpeper’s students could safely fit into its school buildings, staff members said.
Families that want their children to attend school strictly online will have that option.
Trying to keep everyone as healthy as possible despite the presence in the community of the novel coronavirus will require many changes to how education takes place, Houck said.
He hit the highlights from the 15-page Health Mitigation Plan that will guide everyone, from parents to child to school staff.
“This is our foundation,” Houck said. “We are rebuilding school.”
The plan was reviewed and approved by the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District on Thursday, he told the board.
New school rules
Educating thousands of children, parents and staff members about good health practices will be essential to reducing risk, Houck said.
People who fail to report COVID-19 symptoms or risk factors, or who don’t follow prevention measures, won’t be able to attend school or use school buses, he emphasized.
“We will have to say, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to go online,’ ” Houck said.
Students, visitors and staff all will wear masks inside school buildings, in hallways and, with a few specific exceptions, on school playgrounds, he said. Students must wear masks on buses, and be physically distanced from other riders. Every student will be expected to carry hand sanitizer with them, and use it regularly.
Parents won’t be able to pick up their children’s homework, and visitation to school buildings will be strongly discouraged, Houck said. All visitors will have to have a prior appointment.
Staff members will be expected to model proper public-health precautions, as they did at the School Board’s two July work sessions at Floyd T. Binns Middle School.
To manage protective measures and trace COVID-19 exposure should someone become ill, all students will be assigned seating in classrooms, cafeterias and on school buses, Houck said.
Being able to determine who was exposed to a COVID-19 carrier is important to limiting the spread of the disease and to avoid having to close an entire school when a case is confirmed, Houck said.
If a student is suspected of having COVID-19, until they are examined by a health professional, they won’t be able to return to the classroom, he said.
For some families, the cost of health care will be an issue, but the school division can’t take chances with a child returning to school who hasn’t been tested, Houck said.
The school district expects Culpeper’s medical community “will step up” so students have access to the health screening that they need, he said.
Superintendent Tony Brads acknowledged that Culpeper’s public schools are entering uncharted waters.
“There isn’t a model for what we’re about to do,” Brads told the board. “This will be our first time for something other than traditional school.”
Dr. Rob Hauman, briefing the board on the 2021-22 Return to Learning Plan, said the senior staff who have navigated the district’s needs since Virginia schools’ mid-March lockdown and designed alternative plans for this fall have tackled the “most challenging project of our careers.”
“We are going to reopen school like it has never been reopened before,” he said.
The division will present its instructional plan, which staff is now developing based on the School Board’s decision this week, to the Virginia Department of Education by Aug. 3.
Helping guide the board’s split decision were surveys the division conducted of parents and teachers.
Of 6292 parents who responded to the division’s survey, 43 percent (3,595 parents) preferred all-online instruction, 34 percent (2,852 parents) preferred traditional, in-person teaching, and 23 percent (1,903 parents) preferred a model blended from those two.
The number of survey respondents was 75.4 percent of the total 8,350 parents the school division contacted.
If the traditional model wasn’t possible, 96 percent of parents responding selected the blended model, with 4 percent choose remote-only learning.
If the blended model wasn’t possible, 59 percent of parents chose remote-only and 41 percent chose traditional.
Splitting the results into two options--remote-only vs. in-person learning—yielded 43 percent for the former and 57 percent for a mix of the traditional and blended models.
Staff used the numbers to calculate whether individual schools could safely accommodate students given public health authorities’ physical distance requirements. They could, using a blended schedule that mixes in-person and online teaching to reduce the number of students in classrooms—and on buses—at one time.
A split decision
The School Board’s Monday-night meeting ended with 4-3 vote to approve Stevensburg District member Marshall Keene’s motion to approve the blended model.
Keene included a proviso that educators who feel that COVID issues restrict them from teaching in-person be given the opportunity to teach virtually from inside their school building. Administrators would be able to use them as needed amid the trying, unprecedented educational situation imposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The school division would grant an exception for staff members who had a documented medical reason not to teach in person, Keene said.
His proposal, the only one on which the board voted, carried with Keene and members Christina Burnett, Anne Luckinbill and Elizabeth Smith voting for it. Board members Patricia Baker, Barbara Brown, Michelle North were opposed.
On Tuesday, Keene said he has heard “lots of positive feedback” from parents and teachers about the Health Mitigation Plan the board approved.
“In less than 24 hours, more than 15 teachers have changed their mind to teach in person,” Keene said. “However, some members of the public have reverted to distasteful attacks on board members who voted in favor of the blended plan, which is unfortunate when every board member cares about all of our parents, students and staff.”
Allison Cline, president of the Culpeper County Education Association, said the teacher group’s top priority continues to be the health and safety of Culpeper students, their families, educators and support professionals, and the community.
Many CCEA members “have concerns about safety. We are facing an unprecedented situation, and caution is warranted,” Cline said Tuesday.
The association has sent a survey to its membership asking their thoughts, expects to receive its results Thursday, and will make a statement after analyzing the results, Cline said.
Although School Board members didn’t engage in a lot of discussion Monday night, reaching a decision obviously was difficult for them, with a margin of one vote deciding the highly contentious issue.
School Board Vice Chair Pat Baker express sharp concerns about teachers feeling pressured to resume in-person instruction despite the continuing pandemic and their own or their family members’ health vulnerabilities.
“I don’t think anyone who is trying to protect the health of an elderly parent, their children or grandchildren should feel guilty if they have to stay at home,” Baker said. “They shoudn’t be dumped on. ... They’re not lazy. They’re not just sitting at home, waiting on a paycheck.”
The former teacher said Culpeper educators are proud, innovative, creative people, whether they’re in a classroom or not.
“... And we want everyone of these young men and women to come back to us,” Baker said.
Board member Barbee Brown agreed with Baker that the division shouldn’t force teachers to return to the classroom.
If a principal calls a teacher and asks them if they’d consider in-person instruction, most teachers would think they’d better answer “yes,” Brown said.
Brads said if educators refuse such a request for helping fully staff schools this fall, the division isn’t going to compel them to comply.
Keene said he understands that some teachers are scared about COVID-19 risks with reopening schools, but said he doesn’t know how they would feel unsafe with all of the precautions written into the Health Mitigation Plan approved by the board.