The Loudoun County School Board met Friday afternoon for a special meeting and work session regarding Loudoun County Public Schools' response to the coronavirus health crisis.
The meeting's first half covered action and information items originally scheduled for the board's March 24 meeting, which will no longer take place. After a short break, the board reconvened to discuss COVID-19 concerns around 7 p.m. Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) began by thanking LCPS administration, teachers and other staff for their hard work in addressing such an unprecedented issue, as well as parents and families for their "patience and perseverance."
"Your leadership, the decisive decision-making, and the collaboration with state, local and national partners has been exemplary," Sheridan told Superintendent Eric Williams. "I know that LCPS is in really good hands with the leadership demonstrated by yourself and the cabinet — sitting in a different room, six feet apart, as recommended by the CDC."
After reviewing the division's current plans for closure, Williams discussed means by which LCPS families and staff can demonstrate "community care," in addition to social distancing. "Community care includes caring for the most vulnerable among us, including those with food insecurity and those with underlying medical conditions," he said. He also plans to work to properly acknowledge graduating seniors' accomplishments and ensure they "don't feel forgotten or overlooked."
The superintendent further discussed compensation practices for employees, including income replacement, saying long-term substitute teachers and all other part-time employees will receive pay through April 10. Full-time hourly and salaried employees — teacher assistants, secretaries, bus drivers, maintenance workers, etc. — will also be compensated during the closure period.
"It is challenging to navigate uncharted territory with so much uncertainty, and I want to acknowledge the difficulty of functioning in this environment with so much ambiguity, and because of that we're going to continue to provide ongoing updates," Williams said. "I am really grateful for the community's patience and tolerance of uncertainty."
LCPS Director of Communications & Community Engagement Rob Doolittle gave a rundown of the means by which families can receive updates on the pandemic and the division's responses to everyday developments. A list of frequently asked questions and other information can be found on the "COVID-19 Preparedness at LCPS" webpage at lcps.org/Page/227558, and community members can call the LCPS COVID-19 telephone hotline at 571-252-6499.
Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Kevin Lewis gave an update on the division's free meals program, saying more than 62,000 breakfasts and lunches had been served to Loudoun students at pickup locations and countywide bus stops as of Friday. Support Services has made several changes to consolidate the program's efforts: Three more buses will be added to bring the delivery fleet to 57, while the number of delivery stops will decrease from 263 to 248, and in-person pickup will take place at 26 select schools rather than all LCPS campuses.
Updates on "distance learning" initiatives came from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis, who said LCPS is working with the Virginia Department of Education to develop appropriate measures for continuity of education while students remain at home indefinitely. Optional, Internet-based resources by which students can review previously learned material are available at lcps.org/continuityofeducation, and teachers will begin using Google Classroom March 30 to review previously covered skills with pupils, according to a Thursday announcement.
Ellis said Google Classroom was chosen since it is already the most-used online learning platform by LCPS teachers and is easily accessible to students via their Chromebooks or other electronic devices. For students in second grade or lower, Google Classroom may prove less user-friendly, and teachers at those grade levels will therefore resort primarily to ParentVUE to distribute assignments. All division teachers virtually participated Wednesday in distance learning training.
"We ask teachers to use this time to ... set up a Google Classroom if they don't have one that they actively use, to practice using tools including Google Meet to meet with colleagues, and begin developing HypderDocs, which is an online lesson format," Ellis said. Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Services Asia Jones later added special education teachers are working with staff to develop accessible means of education continuity and teacher-pupil communication for students in special education classrooms.
At this point, LCPS will not assign grades or new content. "[VDOE] have been pretty strong in that guidance, that unless you can ensure equitable access for every single student and meet all requirements of free and appropriate public education, they do not advise offering new content and assigning grades," Ellis said. "In the future, if the closure extends, we may shift to teaching new concepts, ideas and skills, but not at this time. We are currently working with our friends in [the Department of Pupil Services] to consider ways to maximize equitable access to new content and skills should the closure be extended."
Dual-enrollment and Advanced Placement courses may be exceptions to the no-grades and no-new-content rules. Partner colleges offering dual-enrollment classes shared specific guidance with dual-enrollment teachers and high school principals earlier this week, Ellis said. College Board, which is in charge of AP courses, announced Friday it will provide free remote learning resources for AP students and is working to develop an at-home testing option. Traditional, face-to-face AP exam administrations will not take place this year.
Further, Ellis sought to quash rumors that Standards of Learning testing this year has been canceled. "The VDOE has used its authority to extend the timeline for SOLs, and in order to cancel them, they will need to wait for the waivers that they submit to the Department of Education," she said. VDOE is also seeking waivers for graduation requirements in the commonwealth to ensure high school seniors are able to graduate regardless of impediments to their instruction.
Assistant Superintendent for Digital Innovation Vince Scheivert commended LCPS for its cooperation with his department in ensuring students have proper access to technological necessities. He described the recently implemented hotspot program, through which the division purchased around 1,000 devices to provide hotspots for those in need of internet access. Families can apply to receive these devices from the Department of Digital Innovation — Scheivert said recipients will be prioritized based on need.
Students having trouble with LCPS-provided technology have several means of troubleshooting during the closure period, according to Scheivert. They can call the Technology Support Center at 571-252-2112, visit supportcenter.lcps.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
LCPS also completed purchase of 11,373 additional Chromebooks through its Individual Learning Device program, and had received more than 5,600 of those as of Friday afternoon. Scheivert said all those devices should be onsite next week, and an additional order has been placed for 3,700 devices, which would complete the acquisition of 15,000 new devices authorized last week. A scheduled rollout of these devices is planned to begin next week.
Board members then had the opportunity to question Williams and staff. John Beatty (Catoctin District) asked whether there are plans to extend the 2019-2020 school calendar, to which Williams replied VDOE has shown great flexibility when considering waivers to student attendance requirements this year. "They've asked us to have some patience with them as they're sorting through some things," he said.
Jeff Morse (Dulles District) asked what "trip wires" might lead Loudoun schools to shut down for the rest of the year, barring federal or state intervention. While Williams said administration has not yet identified these potential issues, he opined it is not "realistic at all" to expect LCPS to resume normal operations by the currently scheduled date of April 13.
Leesburg District representative Beth Barts asked Lewis whether LCPS would be able to continue supplying free meals to students at such a high rate. Lewis said suppliers have so far met the requests from Student Nutrition Services, with Williams stating his optimism that the federal government will offer at least partial reimbursement for the program down the road.
"We [board members] try to be the voice of the public, we get thanked a lot, but it's really you guys that have done everything," Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District) — who participated remotely after coming in contact with a known case — told Williams and his cabinet toward the end of the work session. "Whatever comes ... I'm glad that I'm in it with you guys."
Actions taken in the meeting's first half included an adjustment to the division's fiscal 21 operating budget, allocating $3.7 million in additional funds to teacher salaries and bringing the total amended budget to roughly $1.383 billion. Approved unanimously by the board, the decision comes after the State General Assembly earlier this month found final state revenue projections for LCPS to be $6.2 million greater than what was included in the fiscal 2021 adopted budget.
Friday's meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/399381555.