More than 8,000 Loudoun County Public Schools community members tuned in to a live-streamed town hall meeting hosted by Superintendent Eric Williams Wednesday evening, during which he and other senior division staff answered questions regarding the return to classes in the fall.
Last week, the Loudoun County School Board approved a resolution endorsing families' ability to choose between a hybrid learning model and 100 percent distance learning for their students while Virginia is in "Phase 3" reopening. In the hybrid model, most children would attend school in person two days a week and learn remotely the other three. Families are required to pick between the two options by 8 a.m. July 15.
Three of Williams' assistant superintendents accompanied him to answer questions from community members: Ashley Ellis, Asia Jones and Kevin Lewis, representing the departments of Instruction, Pupil Services and Support Services, respectively.
"There is still much that's unknown, and so I want to acknowledge that diverse opinions exist regarding how schools should operate in the new school year, and that it would be easier to make a selection between the two options if more information were available," Williams said during his opening remarks.
Some questions were submitted in the days leading up to the event, while others were submitted during. Below is an abbreviated collection of questions and answers given. Wednesday's town hall meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/436410131.
Why are families required to make a binding choice between hybrid and distance learning two months in advance? What if the outbreak worsens and parents are no longer comfortable with the hybrid model?
Williams: The timing really relates to the amount of planning that's needed in order to be prepared to open the school year. A key part of it is just the creation of the master schedules at each school. At the secondary level, that basically is the courses that are being taught by specific teachers at particular times, and assigning students to those.
That process can typically take three weeks or longer, but now it's even more complex, because basically schools are creating two different master schedules; they've got two different groups of students. That process not only involves assigning students to particular courses and particular times, it also involves assigning teachers, with the greater complexity of whether a teacher is teaching 100 percent distance learning or in a hybrid environment.
What is the curriculum for distance learning?
Ellis: The curriculum for distance learning will be the same as the curriculum for the hybrid learning. [VDOE] is developing resources and supports for teachers to design learning experiences in each model. … Curriculum guidance will include connections to key concepts from the spring of 2020. I know lots of families and teachers as well are worried about learning loss and making sure we make sure students have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed this school year, so curriculum guidance will focus on that as well.
If a student chooses distance learning, are they watching an in-person class where the hybrid students are attending, or are they in their own virtual classroom with their own teacher and other distance learners?
Ellis: The distance-learning students will be assigned to distance-learning teachers and will participate in synchronous instruction with that distance-learning teacher, not with a teacher in the hybrid model who may have students in the classroom at that time.
We've been asked this in multiple ways about the possibility of live-streaming face-to-face instruction in the classroom to students at home. That is extremely difficult, it is not best instructional practice for either the teacher or the students participating in the distance-learning environment, so that is why we are being very intentional in applying distance-learning teachers to students who are participating in distance learning.
Will Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment classes be offered in both the distance-learning model and the hybrid model?
Ellis: Yes. Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment classes will both be offered in both distance learning and the hybrid model. Staff in the central office will collaborate with staff in the schools to schedule hybrid and 100 percent distance-learning teachers for all of these courses.
There are some unique electives that are not necessarily AP or Dual Enrollment that may be more challenging to schedule, and we may have to work with families to find alternatives for those unique electives. I'll also add that LCPS is working with Northern Virginia Community College, our main partner for Dual Enrollment courses, to ensure that the content is available both in distance learning and the hybrid model.
Courses in the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, or MATA, in the Academies of Loudoun are the one exception to this rule. These courses will only be taught in the hybrid model because of the unique needs of those courses, the hands-on nature and the specialized equipment in those classrooms.
Will siblings always be allowed to attend school on the same day?
Williams: Siblings at the elementary level would be automatically assigned [to attend on the same day], and then … parents have the option of making that request at the secondary level, but it's not a guarantee that it can be pulled off at the secondary level because of course requirements. Also, parents should know that if they make that request for students at the secondary level, it could affect the extent to which students' course requests can be satisfied.
How will it be determined how many days students in special-education programs with an Individualized Education Program will attend school in person?
Jones: Students with IEPs may choose to receive their services in the hybrid or in the distance-learning model. The IEP team will determine the level of service and in-person instruction that a student receives.
Our students with disabilities that receive most of their instruction within the general education curriculum will continue to do so with their non-disabled peers. The IEP team will need to review what accommodations and services might be needed to support and enable the students with disabilities to make progress in light of their current circumstance.
Our students with disabilities that receive instruction through the Aligned Standards of Learning, or what we call the ASOL curriculum — our intensive programs, our self-contained programs — may receive more than two days of in-person instruction, again as determined by the student's IEP team.
What are parents with elementary-age students supposed to do? Neither of these options work for parents who work.
Lewis: Child care is another very hot topic for all of us, and it's important to not that members of the School Board, as well as members of the Board of Supervisors, have acknowledged this is a great concern for many parents. Our staff with the schools is working very closely with the county staff to assess the child care issues throughout the county.
[We have] sent out a survey to all staff members of the county and LCPS with a questionnaire about the need for child care. Once we have the results back from that, which are due by the end of next week, then we'll also start working on trying to assess those that are not employees of Loudoun County that have students in the system. … We're working very closely, as I said, with the county to try to assess solutions that may involve space in our buildings or county buildings or even other partially-available buildings.
If bus schedules are adjusted, causing start- and end-times for schools to change, when will parents be notified of these time changes?
Lewis: At this point, we are just gathering information so that we'll be able to start the scheduling of our buses. At this time, we are not expecting drastic changes in the starting and ending time of the school day. As parents select their choices for the instructional day, then we will get that information plugged in, and … it could take as long as three weeks to do that.
Knowing some children are sent to school sick, what steps will be taken to prevent sick kids from entering the school?
Jones: With our new situation of COVID-19, it takes a very high level of community concern for our own selves, as well as others, and we will continue to reiterate to parents the importance of your child staying home when sick. Parents and students will be provided information regarding our daily health screening questionnaire, which is provided to us by the Virginia Department of Health and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. It's a symptom questionnaire, particularly about fever or body aches, and if we've answered yes to any of those, we ask that the child or the staff member stay home.
Again, practicing the public health mitigation strategies, should someone come to school asymptomatic … very well will help protect others wearing cloth face coverings and things of that nature. LCPS will also ask those screening questions when students arrive to school, and … we will have a practice of random, no-touch thermometer temperature checks.
How will the school handle the situation when students don't bring their own masks or are not willing to use a mask in school?
Jones: Schools will have extra face coverings available for students who may forget to wear a face covering, or if they don't have one. Again, it's very important to be mindful of the public health mitigation strategies of physical distancing and … all the other things that come with it — the face covering, as well as the hygiene, frequent hand-washing and things of that nature.
What will the school procedure be when an in-person student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19?
Jones: We know the Virginia phase guidance refers to our "new normal," so we certainly will be promoting advanced hygiene and cleaning and disinfecting, and wearing of cloth face coverings as well as physical distancing. Should someone at the school, student or teacher, present with symptoms, each school will have a designated room, what we'll call a "care room," for students and/or staff that present symptoms, to keep them safe from others.
If they do not have a face covering, we certainly would provide them one and ask the parent to come and pick up the child immediately, or the staff to leave and to follow up with their primary care physician or the [Loudoun County] Health Department immediately.
We also would be in close collaboration with the Health Department to report the symptoms or the information that's been brought to our attention [and] identify if there have been any close contacts. … Those individuals very well would need to self-quarantine, and we would be assisting them through distance learning at that time.
As we have been, we would send [a community notification] out and, of course, implement our disinfecting and cleaning protocol.
If school starts and there's another spike in COVID-19, and LCPS closes its doors again, will LCPS be ready to teach virtually with a more seamless transition?
Williams: Yes. The Virginia Department of Education has emphasized that schools need to be prepared to transition from "Phase 3" back to either "Phase 1" or "2." If the state designates a phase change for the entire state or for Loudoun County, we'd be prepared to shift all students and staff back to 100 percent distance learning as needed, although recognizing that in "Phase 1" and "Phase 2" there are some limited exceptions allowed.
Assessment and grading would stay in place if that were the situation, and there would be more synchronous, or live, interactive instruction, similar to a normal school day.
How do we get up-to-date information on high school athletics? Are tryouts still planned for August 3 for some or all of the sports?
Ellis: Staff is in constant communication with the Virginia High School League, and we will continue to get guidance from the VHSL regarding athletics for the fall. I will say that VHSL is meeting next week to continue their discussions and planning for fall sports. At this time, they do not have definitive answers regarding fall sports, and they do hope to have more information after their meeting next week. We will certainly communicate with coaches, athletic directors and families as soon as we have more information from VHSL.
What criteria will be used to transition back to 100 percent in-person learning, and how quickly will it be implemented once deemed safe?
Williams: This relates to the phase that we're in. As discussed, we're currently in "Phase 3" of the "Forward Virginia" phases, and right now, the phase guidance for Virginia schools issued by [Gov. Ralph Northam] does not provide details regarding the time period that some people are referring to as "beyond Phase 3."
[VDOE officials] state that Virginia will progress through the phases "by monitoring public health data and key measures on disease transmission, health care capacity, testing capacity, public health capacity, decreased contacts with cases and other relevant factors." VDOE recommends that schools "plan to reopen in 'Phase 3' and be prepared to remain in 'Phase 3' for some time."