School buses lineup outside the parking lot of Central High School in Woodstock. Buses have been idle since March 13, the last day of school in Virginia.

The Shenandoah County School Board on Thursday accepted the division’s plan for reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic in August, which will require students in the higher grade levels to receive most of their instruction online to limit the number of people present in the county’s school buildings at any one time.

The Board voted 5-1 to approve the plan, with School Board Chair Karen Whetzel, Vice Chair Cynthia Walsh and fellow board members Michelle Manning, Shelby Kline and Andrew Keller voting in favor. Marty Helsley was the lone dissenting vote.

The reopening plan was discussed at length during a work session on June 25, and on Thursday was further bolstered by data the school division collected through a survey sent to parents that closed at the end of the business day on Tuesday. Superintendent Mark Johnston said during Thursday’s virtual meeting that the division had an 87% response rate on the parent survey.

Under the reopening plan, classes will begin on Aug. 17 (returning staff reports on Aug. 3) and all students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will be able to attend school four days per week – Monday through Thursday – if parents so choose. Students in grades six through 12 who wish to attend school will be able to do so one day per week – those days are determined by the first letter of a student’s last name – and will participate in virtual learning the other three days. Fridays will serve as planning days for teachers.

Any student who wishes to receive instruction entirely online for the 2020-21 academic year may do so. Johnston said the division is working on expanding wireless internet capabilities on all three campuses and at public libraries, and mobile hot spots will service more remote areas of the county. Recently, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors approved allocation of $300,000 of federal CARES Act funding to go to the public schools system to address costs to accommodate distance learning.

Johnston noted that based on results of the survey, which asked parents if they plan to send their children to school for face-to-face instruction, it’s a “certainty” that fifth grade will be moved to the middle school to accommodate social-distancing measures (fifth grade already attends North Fork Middle School on the southern campus). Johnston added that the school division is working under the assumption that the 13% of parents who did not participate in the survey plan to send their children to school for face-to-face learning.

Triplett Tech students, who require a certain amount of hands-on learning to receive licensures in their fields of study, Johnston said, will attend Triplett two days a week and spend a full school day there from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. On one of the other two days each week that those students are not at Triplett, they can attend their home school, Johnston said. He added that Massanutten Regional Governor’s School students also will attend twice a week.

While Johnston said that students with disabilities in grades 6-12 won’t automatically qualify for more face-to-face instruction than the planned one day per week, those students may receive extra in-person school time if it’s deemed appropriate based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Johnston said the central office’s Special Education Department is working with school administrators to identify those students who may require such additional face-to-face instruction.

“It will not be the disability so much that will make that determination as it is what’s in the best interest of the child, what is needed relative to what other children receive,” Johnston said.

The Virginia Department of Education announced earlier this week that it was suggesting students maintain at least a 3-foot distance – a relaxation of the former minimum of 6 feet – as schools enter Phase 3 of the statewide reopening plan, though Johnston said on Thursday that doing so requires students to wear face coverings throughout the entire school day.

While 3-foot distancing measures would theoretically allow Shenandoah County schools to facilitate more students for more frequent face-to-face instruction, Johnston said requiring students – particularly those in the lower grades – to wear face masks throughout the day is “just developmentally inappropriate and is not a recommendation that is even in the best interest of those children.”

Johnston cited the county’s high COVID-19 infection and death rate per capita when compared to other Virginia localities as a reason why the school division is being “very, very stringent” with its health guidelines as it plans to open its buildings to students.

As the division identifies alterations it can make to its reopening plan, it can make tweaks to the way the school year is conducted, Johnston said.

“We want it to be the very best of a bad situation and the problem we have is we don’t get to do a dry run,” Johnston said. “We’ve never opened school this way, ever. We’ve recreated and changed nearly every aspect of what we do, and so our first trial run is the first day of school.”

Johnston did note that because classes will be about a quarter of their traditional size, students will receive high-quality “intensive, individualized” time with their teachers.

Johnston also said he was encouraged by survey results that suggested the school division would be able to provide transportation to all students who require it. He did say he was “a little surprised” that around 54 parents indicated their child would not wear a mask on the bus, a guideline that Johnston said would need to be followed in order for the division to maximize its transportation goal of one child per seat, though he noted that students with certain medical conditions or who are unable to remove their masks won’t be required to wear one.

Johnston added that the division is working with the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department to establish a KidzRec program on Fridays during the school year –  complete with transportation – to help families who may have problems finding child care.

Also on Thursday, the Shenandoah County School Board:

  • Voted 5-1 in favor of a resolution to retire the names of Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School and the Rebel mascot at North Fork Middle School.
  • Unanimously approved revisions to the 2020-21 academic calendar, which include changes to an October parent-teacher conference day and a March professional development day and the removal of the April 5 holiday on the day after Easter.
  • Unanimously approved Walsh as a Virginia School School Boards Association delegate, and Manning as an alternate, for the delegate assembly.
  • Unanimously approved personnel actions that include six appointments, four resignations, one long-term substitute, two transfers and one retirement.

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