Warren County Schools Superintendent Chris Ballenger presents the plan for the upcoming school year to the School Board on Wednesday.

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County students will learn both in-person and from home during the upcoming school year scheduled to begin Aug. 27 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The School Board during a Wednesday meeting unanimously approved a plan in which pre-kindergarden through fifth-grade students will be in schools four days per week with one virtual learning day. All other grades will be in school one day per week with four virtual learning days. Anyone entering schools will have their temperatures taken. All students will be given a device to aid in remote learning.

Superintendent Chris Ballenger said parents can choose a full virtual learning schedule, adding that students will receive new instruction and “there will be assignments that have to be done” no matter what.

Due to bus capacity limits, Ballenger explained schools “had to be creative” with start times.

E. Wilson Morrison, Leslie Fox Kyser and Ressie Jeffries elementary schools will be in session from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m, Hilda J. Barbour and A.S. Rhodes elementary schools from 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and middle and high schools from 9 a.m.-3:05 p.m.

Locations of where some students will learn also changed. According to the plan, fifth-graders at E. Wilson Morrison, Hilda J. Barbour and Leslie Fox Keyser elementary schools will report to an unspecified middle school building. 

While in schools, Ballenger said six- through 12th-graders must wear face coverings all day while elementary students may remove them at their desks. He noted that a Ressie Jeffries teacher has placed tape around each desk to indicate a “mask free zone.” Additionally, face coverings are mandatory on buses, where there will be seating assignments that allow proper spacing. Each bus also will be sanitized between runs.

Other mitigation efforts, Ballenger explained, will include 6-feet social distancing requirements, a reduction of classroom sizes to about 10 students, circulation of clean air, a weekly “deep clean” of school buildings, ensuring students have their own learning supplies, one-way halls, eating in the classrooms and more.

School Board Chairman Arnold Williams said “the bottom line” is the schools are working in the students’ best interest because “that’s our future, that’s who's gonna be pushing my wheelchair one day and I want to make sure they’re educated.” He added that the number of COVID-19 cases in the county has been “about flat.” He said everything should be OK if everybody “uses common sense” and follows the plan.

School Board member Cathy Bower said she supports the plan, noting the importance for elementary students to be in classrooms. School Board member Ralph Rinaldi agreed, saying high school and middle school students are more likely to adapt to different learning scenarios.

Rinaldi added that his “only concern” is teachers with underlying health issues, “but I really think that these kids need to be back in school.”

In compiling the plan, Ballenger said officials considered guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Virginia Department of Education.

This week, Ballenger said the VDH released guidance for schools, which suggest reopening based on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. Ballenger explained that, according to Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene, Warren County has a “low burden of disease and a low transmission.”

In areas where that is the case, Ballenger said the VDH suggests bringing “as many students that you can physically get into the building” while following the state’s Phase 3 reopening guidelines.

Ballenger added that if Warren County eventually has a “moderate transmission rate,” the state suggests schools follow Phase 2 guidelines, which would reduce the number of students allowed in schools. Complete virtual learning is suggested in areas with high transmission rates.

Being in school, Ballenger said, is important for students’ “emotional learning” and physical and mental health. Before the March 13 school closures, Ballenger explained that a statewide social services study showed that school divisions and teachers were the top reporters of child-related welfare issues. Since the closures, he said schools and teachers fell out of the top 10 of those who report cases.

In Warren County, Ballenger explained child welfare reports to social services have decreased but cases are now “more serious” and “more severe.”

Kim Oakland, a Ressie Jeffries Elementary School teacher, said during the meeting that her sentiments can be summarized in three statements – “I’m sorry. Thank you. We will.”

Oakland said she is sorry that the board must make a decision knowing some people will be unhappy no matter what. She added that she is sorry that the state may reverse that decision any day.

“So thank you. Thank you for being willing to make the hard decisions. Thank you for caring about the well-being of our students and staff,” she said.

Oakland added that “we will” get through the situation together.

“And when this pandemic has passed, and it will pass, the teachers of Warren County will still be here wanting the best for their students,” she said

– Contact Josh Gully at jgully@nvdaily.com