A motion to have all grade levels back in Loudoun County Public Schools by Dec. 1 via a hybrid learning model fell one vote short of approval during Tuesday night’s Loudoun County School Board meeting.
Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) successfully moved to suspend the rules during the evening’s information agenda so he could make the motion, which ultimately failed 4-5 with Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District), Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District), Beth Barts (Leesburg District), Denise Corbo (At-Large) and Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn District) opposed.
During an earlier presentation, LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams provided further details regarding “Phase 3” of the school system’s planned, four-phase hybrid learning implementation model.
The third phase will, as currently planned, see students grades 3 through 5 begin part-time in-person learning Dec. 1, in addition to high-school seniors at the Academies of Loudoun’s Academy of Engineering and Technology, as well as its Academy of Science.
“Stage 1” commenced the first day of school Sept. 8 with partial in-person learning for students at the Academies’ Monroe Advanced Technical Academy. It continued Tuesday, when hybrid learning launched for certain students with disabilities.
Additionally, the first stage is scheduled to integrate preschool and pre-K students, as well as certain English-learning students, into the hybrid model by Oct. 27. That date also marks the scheduled start to “Stage 2,” which would include students in grades K through 2.
“Stage 4” will presumably inaugurate hybrid learning for all middle- and high-school students. However, all LCPS families would have the opportunity to keep their child enrolled in 100 percent distance learning.
Had it succeeded, Serotkin’s motion would have essentially eliminated “Stage 4” of the planned hybrid implementation model, compressing it into into three stages total.
After the rules had been suspended and the motion made, Serotkin began his remarks by saying he was already reluctant to begin the year with 100 percent distance learning when the board voted unanimously in favor of that move back in July.
“We’re sitting three months later, near the end of the first quarter, and we’re largely in the same boat that we were back then,” Serotkin said. “Distance learning is working well for some students, perhaps even for a majority of students, but definitely not for everyone.”
He further referenced data from “hundreds of school districts across the country that have reopened either hybrid or full-time” to express his confidence in LCPS’s ability to expedite its own reopening process.
“What seems fairly clear … is that masks work, social distancing works and mitigation strategies work,” Serotkin said. “It is possible to open schools safely by following the public health safety guidelines and handling positive cases as they occur, by quarantining or isolating individuals, classes, cohorts, schools if absolutely necessary.”
Most vocally in favor of Serotkin’s motion was Jeff Morse (Dulles District), who cited a conversation he held last week in which an LCPS principal reportedly estimated teachers “were achieving an average effectiveness of 25 percent” in the current distance-learning model.
“[The students] are flunking; we are responsible,” he said. “It makes sense that kids are completely overwhelmed with schoolwork, trying to absorb a firehose of data through a soda straw. Distance learning is restraining learning.”
Morse personally estimated teachers are ironically “putting in 50 percent more work” only to achieve such underwhelming results and dismissed arguments from the public claiming teachers do not want to return to school.
“So many teachers have told me they are desperate to return to the classroom. They want the division to make it as safe as possible, but they’re accepting that risk,” Morse said. “The risk is not going to be zero, and they know that. They are in tears over the failure of their students. I also hear teachers who have medical concerns, and we must protect them, but what I don’t hear are those at-risk teachers telling us that all of their colleagues should stay in distance learning.”
Serotkin’s and Morse’s concerns echoed those of many of the evening’s dozens of public commenters.
Other board members, however, were hesitant. Reaser said she had heard from a number of families who feel the current distance learning model has “hit its stride.”
“I don’t want to discount any one child’s experience, so I keep trying to think of, ‘How can we do this in a way that makes things a little bit better for everyone?” she said.
Reaser further aired concerns regarding sufficient staffing to support both students who select hybrid learning and those who opt to remain fully virtual, as well as the school system’s ability to provide the equipment and transportation services necessary to sustain both learning models.
The superintendent followed Reaser’s comments by saying he and staff would like more time to test whatever technology would be necessary to implement the hybrid model across the board, further opining a more spread-out implementation would be more stable in the long run.
“[This] approach allows us to gain the confidence of staff members over time and, with the public health mitigation monitors, to be able to say, ‘Yes, we’re consistently implementing this,” Williams said. “We hear loud and clear that the current approach is not working for many people, but ... I think it’s really important to give a huge shout-out for the teachers and administrators who are pouring their hearts and souls into this, and are having some successes given the difficulties we are facing.”
While she said she would have liked to accelerate the hybrid implementation process, Barts expressed doubt that LCPS would be able to “create a fabulous distance learning environment” while simultaneously focusing great effort on the hybrid learning environment.
“Listening tonight, we don’t even know if we have the materials, the equipment, to actually connect our distance learners,” she said. “Someone’s going to have to have new teachers, someone’s going to have to perhaps move, and to do that to our high schoolers especially.”
Barts further questioned the school system’s ability to implement proper social distancing procedures in school buildings with only a month-and-a-half of planning.
However, in order to ease the demands on students “drowning in coursework” within the current distance learning model, Barts successfully moved earlier in the evening to have staff reimplement an ABAB schedule for middle- and high-schoolers by Nov. 9, rather than the current AABB arrangement.
This motion — which the School Board approved unanimously — came after a Change.org petition titled “Reduce the workload for LOCO students” received more than 11,000 signatures. As of Wednesday morning, that number has surpassed 13,500.
Tuesday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/467736821.