If the Culpeper County School Board reaches a decision Monday night, it may be the most momentous ever.

At a 6 p.m. work session in Floyd T. Binns Middle School’s gymnasium, the seven-member board will consider options for reopening the county’s public schools this fall amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. It will not hear public comments, per its policy during work sessions.

The board is considering three models for resuming school: 100 percent online, in-person classes four days per week, and a hybrid of those two options.

Using the Virginia Department of Education’s Recover, Redesign, Restart document, school district administrators developed a “Return to Learn Plan” that will provide specifics on the three alternatives.

At Monday’s meeting, staff will present the results of the division’s recent parent and staff preference surveys, the division’s COVID-19 Mitigation Health Plan and the Return to Learn Plan. All of the documents will be available on the Culpeper County Public Schools website for reading Monday evening, under “Quick Links/School Board/BoardDocs.”

The Mitigation Plan will provide parents, students and staff with details on preventing the spread of coronavirus in the schools and on school buses.

Parents will find the answers to many of their questions in that plan, School Board Chair Michelle North said on Saturday.

“After reading the health plan, some parents may decide a different reopening plan may be better suited for one or all of their children,” North said.

Meeting on TV, net

The meeting will be broadcast on Comcast and live-streamed on Culpeper Media Network. For people who attend in person, there will be limited seating, and six-foot physical distancing guidelines will be followed. Face masks are required.

“No decisions about reopening have been reached,” North said Saturday. “Board members are still listening to parents and teachers, and will give their thoughtful consideration to any new information from staff, the federal Centers for Disease Control, Virginia Department of Education, Virginia Department of Health, and reputable scientific papers.”

“Board members may have a stronger opinion about one reopening plan than another, based on the information available today, but no decisions have been made, no vote has been taken,” she added.

But Stevensburg District member Marshall Keene, who has most forcefully advocated in-person classes, says a majority of members has decided against that option.

On July 21, he posted this statement—and more—on his personal Facebook page: “I got a call from the Chairman of the School Board, Michelle North, today telling me that the majority of the School Board wanted to see an “All Virtual” plan for reopening. Bet she is going to rely on science in her decision, not data from the parents.

“Any takers? No worries, I have spoken with the six other board members and they all have told me that they will be looking at data from the questionnaire to parents and staff as well. It will be a travesty to not consider parent and/or teacher responses to the questionnaire.”

On Saturday, North denied telling Keene that an all-online plan was a done deal.

Opinions may change

“I do not doubt that some members will have a different opinion on July 27 than they do today, or a different opinion on Oct. 15 than they do today,” North said. “It is the nature of dealing with an evolving novel virus.

“Staff will share more information at the July 27 work session, and it will contribute to each board member’s personal decision on how to reopen Culpeper Public Schools safely.”

North noted that if the School Board votes to begin school under one plan, it doesn’t mean that is how classes will continue through the whole school year.

If COVID-19 cases in Culpeper spike, the novel coronavirus positivity rate passes 5 percent, or students or staff are diagnosed with the disease, it will affect how students will access learning, she said.

“Every day there seems to be new information on transmission, effective mitigation strategies, and the effects of age and comorbidities on the severity of the disease,” North said.

“In my opinion, there is still so much that is not understood about the transmission of SARS-coV2—the aerosolization and distance spread of the virus, the effectiveness of various air-filtration systems, the safe ratio of recirculated indoor air to exterior fresh air, and how subclinical infections—which are highly prevalent in children—contribute to transmission and add to community spread,” she said. “These are just a few of the numerous concerns that I believe need to be understood before bringing together thousands of students and teachers into our buildings.”

North said it is unfortunate that the public is being told that many board members have already made up their minds before receiving the parent and staff surveys’ results, or the staff’s mitigation and instructional plans.

Social media has greatly complicated and, in many cases, skewed people’s understanding of COVID-19 and minimized the complexities that officials must navigate to be able to safely reopen Culpeper schools in a pandemic, she said.

Not online?

Answering questions from the Culpeper Star-Exponent, Keene said Saturday that he supports online education as an option but not a mandate.

“If parents want their child to attend 4 days a week in person and we have the space and staff to safely do so, then we should provide that type of education for those families,” he said. “We shouldn’t be forcing parents to choose between their jobs and their children’s education. If families feel it’s safer for their students to attend online, that’s already guaranteed.”

Keene said parents’ response to the survey will play a significant role in his decision.

“I’m a strong proponent of school choice and I firmly believe that parents should have a voice in how to educate their own children. These questionnaires should give that guidance,” he said.

“Not to mention the decision affects almost 700 support staff whose roles could look drastically different in a 100% online option. We need these employees at work, the economy needs them working, and I know they want to be at work,” Keene said.

Regardless of whatever reopening plan the School Board chooses, the district’s support staff will continue to be important, North said in response to his comment. Some support staff will take on new tasks that online learning will require, she said.

“We need to start making decisions that are in the best interest of our students and their future,” Keene said.

When the Virginia General Assembly holds its next special session, education should be a major issue for legislators’ discussion, he said.

“Teachers may be asked to do more than usual so, with that, teacher pay raises should be considered along with the flexibility of additional funding to local school divisions,” Keene said.

Views sought

At a long and contentious July 13 meeting in the Binns gym, the School Board voted to query parents and staff about which reopening option they prefer.

Teachers and other staff were asked to declare their intent, whether they commit to teaching in-person or online, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board asked parents what they prefer: 100 percent online education; in-person teaching on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesday set aside—per Virginia Department of Health guidelines—for deep cleaning of school facilities; or a “hybrid” option splitting students into two groups, to attend in-person classes on Monday-and-Tuesday or Thursday-and-Friday, with online education the rest of the time.

Districts go virtual

Three of the largest public school systems in the Washington DC area will start the school year virtually. A growing number of districts have opted to keep students out of classrooms as coronavirus cases keep rising across the region.

On Tuesday night, the Fairfax County School Board approved a plan to provide only online classes in the fall, backtracking from earlier plans to give parents a choice between limited in-person instruction and remote learning.

The Loudoun County School Board endorsed a similar plan for online-only instruction, heeding its superintendent’s recommendation.

Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools announced Tuesday they will teach virtually through January, instead of gradually bringing students back into classrooms this fall.

More and more educators in the metro region have said they don’t feel safe returning to campuses this autumn.

Arlington and Prince William counties’ schools will offer virtual-only instruction at the start of the school year. In Maryland, students in Prince George’s County Public Schools will continue distance learning through January.

Forty-three percent of the K-12 education in Virginia will be totally virtual this fall, Virginia School Board Association Executive Director told North on Thursday.

Enough room?

Earlier this month, Culpeper School Board members expressed concern about how many students the county’s school buildings and buses can safely accommodate and meet state and federal physical-distancing guidelines.

The staff had to determine how many students the school division’s facilities can safely handle. Early estimates indicated a classroom—depending on its size and ventilation—could handle about half its normal number of students.

If lots of parents prefer a traditional model with in-person classes four days per week (the maximum allowed by current state guidelines), Culpeper’s school buildings may not be able to handle that many students.

Staff, parents and the School Board must move fast because the school division’s instructional and health plans for autumn classes are due Aug. 3 to the state Department of Education. Teachers will return to Culpeper schools on Aug. 10-11. Parents will be able to pick up ChromeBooks on Aug 19-20.

Under the COVID-19 schedule approved last month by the Culpeper School Board, classes will begin Aug. 24, two weeks later than normal.

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