The Shenandoah County Public Schools division is putting together a group that will explore the division’s options regarding the start of the 2020-21 school year as COVID-19 continues to cloud the picture surrounding the reopening of schools across the state this fall.

Superintendent Mark Johnston, in response to a question posed by School Board member Michelle Manning regarding the status of discussions pertaining to the start of next school year, said during Thursday’s School Board meeting that the division is pooling together a committee that will include board member Andrew Keller, who will represent the School Board, and at least one parent representative who has children at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the county.

Johnston said the division is following the lead of state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane while also reviewing plans made by other states and other school divisions.

“What we’re doing is moving right ahead with that,” Johnston said during the meeting. “We’re also looking at a way to regularly communicate that out in a welcoming and calming way to our parent community. Also, some of the updates I’ve sent to them have started to … kind of project how we’re planning.”

Since schools were closed on March 13 in response to the new coronavirus pandemic, the county’s students have been given the opportunity to complete optional coursework at home. It remains to be seen whether students will be able to attend classes as usual when the 2020-21 academic year begins in August.

Johnston noted that discussions about a potential reopening of Shenandoah County’s schools need to take into account more than simply the safety of the students in the classroom. Johnston, as an example, posed the question of how the division would transport students to and from school if social-distancing guidelines are still in place.

“We have 77-passenger school buses. If we’re coming back to school with physical distancing, that 77-passenger bus is not gonna haul 77 kids in one haul,” Johnston said. “We’re moving full speed ahead and we’re gonna be putting some information out, and we’ve got a pretty good cross-section.”

Johnston also addressed a question from board member Marty Helsley about the status of on-campus summer school sessions, noting that, given the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Ralph Northam that isn’t set to expire until June 10, Shenandoah County would not hold face-to-face summer school instruction through the month of June.

Johnston added that the division is planning to launch a virtual summer school plan, similar to what it already uses for high school courses on a platform called APEX, for all grade levels. Johnston said that if schools are able to hold face-to-face summer school instruction in July, the division is potentially looking at a rotating calendar for those students or half-day programs that would limit the number of students present on county campuses at any one time.

“We do have some options there,” Johnston said. “All of our teachers are participating in professional learning right now around blended learning, which combines online and face-to-face through Virtual Virginia. … We’re planning for perhaps using that to help leverage that.”

Helsley noted that if it’s at all possible to hold on-campus summer school instruction in July, the division should do so because it would send a “good signal” to the community that “we’re gonna try our best to start small” and build toward the larger goal of reopening next school year under whatever guidelines the division and the state decide are necessary.

Johnston said in response: “I can assure you this: should the governor’s order be lifted and schools may reopen, we will be having summer school face-to-face in our buildings, without question.”

School Board members Karen Whetzel, the board’s chair, Marty Helsely, Cynthia Walsh, Michelle Manning, Shelby Kline and Andrew Keller were all in attendance at Thursday’s virtual meeting.

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com