In a month, Culpeper County high schools could be on their way to hosting students in-person four days per week, instead of the two days they now do.
That’s the scenario advocated by School Board member Marshall Keene.
By the board’s Dec. 14 meeting, Keene wants answers from school administrators about what that schedule change, amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, would entail.
Superintendent Tony Brads promised to deliver answers after Keene pitched the idea during the board’s annual retreat last week.
The principals of Culpeper County and Eastern View high schools have said that, even with physical distancing requirements of the school division’s coronavirus Mitigation Plan, their facilities could safely accommodate students four days a week, the school division’s staff told the School Board at its Nov. 17 meeting.
“If Culpeper High and Eastern View say they can do it, let’s do it,” Keene said, pressing hard to adjust the division’s plans for the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.
“We’re making the Mitigation Plan work. Everyone’s got to wear a mask now,” he said. “So I say, we do it. Get more students back in class.”
DATA TO COME
“For grades 9-12, whether we are able to add ‘more students’ in the hybrid model on Tracks A and B or ‘more days’ for current in-person students remains to be seen,” Culpeper County Public Schools Superintendent Tony Brads said Tuesday, when asked for comment by the Star-Exponent. “The board will be presented data relative to any possible changes to the high school model in December.”
Now, in-person students are split into two groups, the A and B cohorts, to attend classes two days per week in school buildings. The other three days of the week, they complete assignments at home and engage in online learning.
Many of the division’s 8,000 students attend classes either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. That allows enough physical distancing between them in classrooms, hallways and common spaces to stem the spread of COVID-29.
But when Culpeper started its 2020-21 school year in August with a mix of in-person teaching and online instruction, more parents chose remote-only classes than in-classroom instruction.
“With the second semester nearing in late January, it’s imperative that we reevaluate our current return-to-school plan,” Keene told the newspaper on Tuesday. “Thanks to our staff and students, our mitigation plan is working extremely well.”
He acknowledged that Culpeper’s elementary and middle schools lack enough space, under COVID-19 conditions, to combine the hybrid model’s A and B cohorts four days a week. But at the high schools, there is enough space to reconsider returning all of the in-person students to a four-day-per-week schedule, he said.
“I understand the concept of trying to get as many students back in the classroom as possible with the two-day-a-week program, but at some point we need to concentrate on getting students who want more face time with their teachers, especially those students who may be struggling with the online version of learning,” Keene added. “It’s imperative that we have a solid understanding of how many students plan to stay the course with learning remotely versus returning to a two-day cohort before that decision can be made.”
Michelle North, formerly the School Board’s chair, said Tuesday that she supports putting students who are struggling with remote learning in existing, in-person classes where there is capacity, based on physical-distancing recommendations and teacher availability.
“At the high schools, it’s been a different situation,” North told the Star-Exponent. “Many secondary students, whether they are 100% remote learners or attend school two days a week in-person, are working part time to help their families financially or have the responsibility of caring for younger siblings while their parents work. These students do not appear interested in increasing their in-person class time to two, much less four, days a week—or able to do so.”
Rather than try to combine the division’s A and B cohorts four days a week, it would be more advantageous to identify the high schools’ struggling remote learners, who are at risk of failing a class or not meeting graduation requirements, and bring them into the schools for two days a week of in-person learning, she said.
“This has proven to be successful in the lower grades,” North said. “It makes sense to try this approach with our secondary students.”
EFFECT ON TEACHERS
She expressed concern about how Keene’s proposal would affect teachers, who have been greatly strained by the demands of Culpeper’s hybrid system of classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Already, many of our secondary teachers have to prepare three lesson plans for each class they teach—100% remote students, Cohort A students and Cohort B students. If a four-day option was offered, the same teacher would then have to juggle yet another group of students and devise yet another lesson plan because many of the A & B students would want, or need, to remain in the hybrid two-day-a-week program,” North said. “Our teachers have done a yeoman’s job this year, but to add yet another cohort to their responsibilities would be asking too much.”
Since early summer, Keene has forcefully urged his colleagues to reopen classes to the greatest extent possible under the COVID-19 guidelines issued by Virginia and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also since early summer, Culpeper’s Salem District Supervisor Tom Underwood and some of his colleagues have pressed the schools to restart 5-days-per-week instruction, viewing it as best for students’ learning and social development.
If the schools don’t do so, Underwood has proposed cutting the county’s appropriations for education, and using the savings to pay working parents for the extra costs they bear for child care. Parents in many of Culpeper’s dual-income and commuting families can no longer stay at home and care for their children, as they could early in the pandemic’s reign, Underwood has said.
In late August, the Board of Supervisors nearly took back $2.5 million it previously allocated to the public schools, with a majority saying the money would be better spent helping parents navigate online learning at home. In October, the supervisors diverted nearly $360,000 in federal CARES Act pandemic relief from the schools to support a newly devised aid program for county families.
Last week, in response to Keene’s proposal, some School Board members pushed back.
“I don’t know that it’s that simple, Marshall,” board member Anne Luckinbill told Keene.
Board member Barbee Brown said it would be better to leave the classroom schedule alone for now. In late February, after the first semester ends, the division will learn more from students about their needs, Brown said.
Keene also said the division should revisit getting all of its teachers back to work in its buildings, instead of having many work remotely most of the week. It should give teachers that option, he said
“We’ve got to cut bait with these virtual learners at some point,” Keene said, saying the division should get virtual learners into classrooms two days per week.
The division shouldn’t let the issue of schedule changes drag out to the end of May, he said.
COVID ON THE RISE
But if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise, the idea of adding more in-person classes could be “dead in the water” within a week or so, Luckinbill said. The pandemic’s course, and state or federal decisions, could decide the issue for Culpeper, she said.
School Board member Pat Baker most people wouldn’t question the desirability of getting more students back in the classroom as long as it can be done safely.
But that depends on conditions at each school, Baker and school administrators said.
In-person education is especially important to high school students, she said, given their interest in sports and social interaction.
All of Culpeper’s elementary schools are maxed out and can’t accommodate more students, administrators said. The middle schools are in a similar strait.
Michelle Metzgar, the division’s human resources director, said she doesn’t know how many teachers are available to return to 5-day-a week in-person teaching.
Brad said it is very difficult for the administration to make any blanket statement about spacing and scheduling requirements. A change would depend on Culpeper’s positivity rate for COVID-19, classroom scheduling, transportation issues with students sitting apart on school buses, and how much space is available in each school given the need for physical distancing, he said.
After hearing administrators’ Nov. 17 update on the division’s Return to Learning plan, Keene said they demonstrated “a negative approach” to expanding in-person classes.
During their vigorous discussion, he did not keep on his face mask, as required by the division’s Mitigation Plan. School Board members and staff members were masked and physically distanced in Culpeper High’s studio throughout the daylong board retreat.
Last month, seeking to double the number of students taking in-school classes, Keene took to Facebook to urge parents to call their child’s principal and press her or him to return the student to in-person classes. “Our teachers and staff already have proven they are exemplary at the unknown,” he posted.