Warren County Public Schools could increase the number of days students attend in-person classes starting next month.
Schools Superintendent Chris Ballenger said this week that division officials first want to hear from parents about the proposed schedule change. He updated the School Board on Wednesday on the topic.
This year, the division has adjusted its practices, procedures and schedules in response to the changing environment during the pandemic, Ballenger said.
“The ultimate goal of Warren County Public Schools is to have all students attend five days per week and to resume a normal schedule while ensuring the health and safety of students and staff,” he read from his written report. “Unfortunately, we are not able to attain this goal yet but want to increase the number of in-person days for our sixth, seventh and eighth students.”
School officials began working on the plan in November, Ballenger said. School Board members heard from Dr. Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, as well as division administrators and principals from the two middle schools. Greene spoke to the board via an internet video conferencing service.
Assistant Superintendent for Administration Melody Sheppard said that parents helped school safety by keeping children at home who appeared ill. Schools now require all students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings all day. Students eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and desks are spaced 6 feet apart. Schools make hand sanitizer and wipes available. Schools are also sanitized at least once a week, sometimes two or three times per week. Custodians wipe flat surfaces such as desks, doorknobs or door jambs.
“If we move to Warren County Middle School and Skyline Middle School going to two days per week, then we will sanitize each – we will do a deep clean at each of those buildings three times a week, so Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening,” Sheppard said.
Since school began Sept. 8, 43 students and 30 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, Sheppard said. The numbers likely could increase from over the winter break, she added. Officials expect the numbers to even out by Feb. 1, when administrators would like to start the new schedule.
Division administrators and principals propose that middle school students attend in-person classes two days per week. Students now attend in-person classes one day per week and attend virtual classes remotely four days per week.
Greene spoke to the School Board on Wednesday about the proposed change.
“So, as far as the health outcome, we really don’t have a whole lot of evidence that children being in school is driving the pandemic, and I honestly can’t say one way or another whether having children in two days a week rather than one is gonna make a difference,” Greene said. “I think you need – like everything else, there’s a risk and benefit – and you need to weigh the potential benefit against what little bit of risk there might be.
“Again, there’s reason to believe there’s probably just as much risk outside the schools or more as there is inside,” he added.
Aaron Mitchell, the division's transportation director, advised that bus routes would change and travel time would increase. Ride times decreased with the current schedule. Mitchell estimated ride times would increase to more than an hour under the proposed changes. Pick-up times also would change, but stops would remain the same.
The division started its combination schedule of in-person and virtual classes at the beginning of the 2020-2021 year in September to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect students, staff, parents and visitors during the pandemic.
Gov. Ralph Northam ended the school year for all divisions in March in response to the growing pandemic. Virginia education officials charged all divisions to adhere to national and state guidelines at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Warren County schools followed the guidelines presented by the state.
Ballenger explained in an email that school administrators want to see how parents of students at one of the middle schools feel about the proposed changes.
"We are going to survey our families at A.S. Rhodes to see what impact a time change will have on them before a final decision is made concerning the increase in instructional days at the middle school," Ballenger states in the email.