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School Board member: Double number of students in classes
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School Board member: Double number of students in classes

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Can Culpeper safely pack more students into its public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as some county supervisors desire?

The jury’s still out, but the issue is back before the School Board after board member Marshall Keene raised it publicly this week.

Keene hammered away at the subject during Monday night’s School Board meeting, noting that a number of county supervisors advocate having all of Culpeper’s 8,000-plus students return to the classroom, despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s troubling to me to walk the halls of our schools and see two kids in a classroom,” Keene said as staff updated the board on the division’s Return to Learning Plan. “How many classrooms have more than five kids in them?”

Keene asked staff to crunch its numbers “hard” to see how many students the division’s COVID-19 Mitigation Plan would allow to return to classrooms, and urged his colleagues to consider that move during the board’s November retreat.

The board’s Stevensburg District member, Keene chairs the Culpeper County Republican Committee.

GOP Supervisor Tom Underwood, the governing board’s Salem District representative, says in-person, 5-days-per-week instruction is best for students’ learning and social development.

If Culpeper doesn’t fill its schools, Underwood has proposed to cut its county funding. Last week, as he had earlier proposed, the Board of Supervisors trimmed CARES Act coronavirus relief money for the schools. It will use the money to compensate working parents for extra costs they’ve incurred because of the pandemic.

Keene, in Facebook posts Tuesday and Wednesday, repeatedly pressed his idea that Culpeper County Public Schools can double the number of students taking in-person classes.

Culpeper started its 2020-21 school year in August with a mix of in-person teaching and online instruction. More Culpeper parents chose remote classes than in-classroom instruction.

In one post, Keene urged parents, “Call your child’s principal to return them to in-person. We are already seeing an uptick in online students returning. We have the space, we just have to build another plan blindly and see if it flys. Our teachers and staff already have proven they are exemplary at the unknown.”

On Wednesday, he wrote: “The first 9 weeks for school ends very soon. There is no better time to transition your child to in person learning than now. ... We can make this work with your help in returning your student back to a traditional learning model. OUR SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS HAVE THE CAPACITY!”

But instructional director Rob Hauman, responding Monday to Keene’s proposal, urged that the school system “stay the course, because things are doing well with (COVID-19) mitigation. ... What we’re pulling off is pretty amazing, I think.”

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The division has reported only a few COVID-19 cases since reopening, with no outbreaks.

In his earlier presentation to the board, Hauman counseled maintaining the division’s hybrid instructional plan through the first semester—unless Gov. Ralph Northarm were to declare that Virginia has progressed beyond Phase 3 of its COVID-19 containment strategy.

Culpeper schools have offered parents three options: two days of in-person classes, with three days remote teaching; five days of remote instruction; or four days of in-person teaching, but only for a very small number of special-needs students.

In the first choice, students are split into two cohorts over a week, so less than half the usual number of schoolchildren are in classrooms, to reduce the risk of infecting others. Students, teachers and staff are physically distanced at least six feet apart, must wear a mask, and are asked to regularly wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.

Counseling that the School Board keep using that model while teachers and school staff adjust to the pandemic’s unprecedented demands, Hauman said his advice to all is: “Don’t make yourself a close contact, keep your distance, wear a mask, and we can get through this thing.”

Hauman said returning more students to classrooms wouldn’t be possible in all the schools, given the need for physical distancing under state and federal health guidance. The elementary schools’ classrooms are really tight, some with zero seats available, while some high school classrooms have quite a bit of space, he told the board.

School Board member Barbee Brown, a former teacher, said the school system cares not only about its students, but also their families and the health of the entire community.

“It’s not as simple as going by a classroom and seeing some space in it,” Brown said.

Devising a master schedule for a school is complicated, given parents’ and students’ expectations for optional classes and special offerings. Culpeper students are preparing for universities, Germanna Community College and technical careers, which require different kinds of instruction and also limit classroom availability, she said.

“It’s hard for parents to understand,” Brown said. “There are about 18 things to think of.”

In Culpeper’s high schools, it would not be possible to safely combine the Track A & B cohorts so both groups could attend together on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, staff members told the board.

Superintendent Tony Brads, rising to speak when Keene pressed his proposal, also recommended staying the course of providing a mix of online and in-person instruction.

If a change were to be made, the division must make sure it doesn’t add to teachers’ already high workload, Brads said.

“It’s not just a (classroom) capacity thing. It’s an instructional thing,” he said. “Our teachers are working their tails off to make this a quality experience for students, whether it’s remote instruction 100 percent, blended, or a hybrid.”

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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