The Joint Committee of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and the Loudoun County School Board met virtually Monday afternoon to exchange updates regarding their recent respective efforts.
Committee members — including supervisors Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Sylvia Glass (D-Broad Run) and School Board members Denise Corbo (At-Large) and Leslee King (Broad Run District) — particularly focused on Loudoun County Public Schools’ staged implementation of a hybrid learning model, as well as equitable community practices and broadband access for western Loudoun residents.
Two committee members, Supervisor Juli Briskman (D-Algonkian) and School Board Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District), were absent for the meeting, while several additional members of both bodies attended and occasionally offered comment.
Corbo, who co-chairs the joint committee with Umstattd, gave a rundown of the school system’s efforts to continue returning students to the classroom via a part-time in-person learning model.
Most recently, certain students with disabilities began hybrid learning Oct. 13, and the process will integrate preschool, pre-K, grades K through 2 and certain English-learning students Oct. 27, though parents who wish to keep their child learning 100 percent virtually will be able to do so. As planned, students in grades 3 through 5 will begin hybrid learning Dec. 1, while middle and high school students are predicted to begin hybrid learning at the start of the spring semester in January.
During the Oct. 13 School Board meeting, a vote to initiate hybrid learning for all remaining grade levels — including all secondary students — by Dec. 1 narrowly failed. Corbo said LCPS plans to move forward by testing hybrid learning scenarios at the secondary level to prepare for middle- and high-schoolers’ eventual integration into the new learning model.
“We’ve already done some scenarios … and gained some information from that,” Corbo said.
She added LCPS staff has distributed two surveys to members of the community: one for parents to give an update as to whether they wish for their children to engage in hybrid learning or continue full distance learning for the spring semester; and another to students, asking about their concerns as they continue their socially-distanced education.
LCPS originally planned to start the 2020-2021 academic year with a mix of hybrid and distance learning until the School Board voted in July to pivot to a 100 percent virtual model. A week before that vote, an LCPS parent survey indicated 50.55 percent of families planned to keep their children learning fully from home, while 38.49 percent would opt for the hybrid model.
Answering a question from Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), Corbo said the new parent survey will offer school administrators insight as to the challenges they may face bringing students back into facilities while upholding public health mitigation strategies endorsed by the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“...Superintendent [Eric Williams] shared that if 70 percent of families preferred the hybrid model, then we would have to possibly adjust our offering for what that hybrid model might look like, because we are adhering to the 6-foot distancing [mandate] and the amount of students in a classroom would be a concern,” Corbo said.
Randall then asked whether children will be guaranteed enrollment in the preferred learning model their parents select, the answer to which Corbo said has not yet been shared with the School Board and also largely depends on the survey results.
Corbo also presented an overview of school technology, saying LCPS is currently analyzing what devices and platforms will be necessary to sustain both distance and hybrid learning once the spring semester has begun. Quality access to broadband and necessary devices will continue to be crucial for students and teachers going forward, as Corbo said the school system may live-stream classes taking place in person next semester for students to watch from home if they opt for fully virtual learning.
Assistant County Administrator Erin McLellan followed, recounting the Board of Supervisors’ approval of a multifaceted initiative regarding broadband access last month. She added the county staff is working to make progress on cable franchise agreements and may be able to harness a portion of recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to expedite broadband efforts, though “the restrictions on that particular funding are pretty tight.”
“Staff is working on coming back to the board before the close of this calendar year with an update on our efforts regarding broadband,” McLellan said.
In the meantime, teachers who do not have quality internet access will be invited into their brick-and-mortar classrooms to do work, according to LCPS Assistant Superintendent for Digital Innovation Vince Scheivert. School Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) added some western Loudoun school buildings have internet café-esque setups where students can visit if they have trouble connecting to online learning materials.
“It’s such a hard issue right now, and the board has really struggled with it. After years of people saying … ‘We don’t want any cell towers,’ now, because of COVID, we need broadband out there, we need it right away, and it’s hard to do,” Randall remarked.
Finally, LCPS Director of Equity Lottie Spurlock spearheaded the conversation on the two governmental bodies’ recent equity-related efforts. Citing a definition offered by the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Community Engagement, Spurlock said educational equity “is achieved when we can eliminate the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, zip code, abilities, socioeconomic status or languages spoken at home.”
The school system’s efforts to assess racial equity ramped up significantly in early 2019, including the creation of an ad hoc committee on the subject, which has since been extended indefinitely. The topic took on renewed significance after the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, resulting in the creation of an Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism as well as a Comprehensive Equity Plan, the latter of which the School Board approved last month.
However, Spurlock insisted LCPS “didn’t just decide last year that equity is a priority.”
“It really has been the work of community advocacy — some individuals, some groups, MSAAC, NAACP, individual parents — over a period of years and decades, really, calling for solutions to better serve all students, particularly those who have been underserved: our Black and brown students,” she continued.
The school system’s continued focus on matters of race will include the creation of a draft protocol for responding to hate speech and racial slurs, as well as a “community conversation” event Nov. 12 covering students’ partnership with local law enforcement. In addition, LCPS plans to collaborate with the county government and apply to participate in Georgetown University’s “Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice Certificate Program.”
Assistant County Administrator Valmarie Turner followed Spurlock, outlining several equity-related efforts the county government has made in recent months. Among other actions, the Board of Supervisors recently approved the creation of an Office of Equity and Inclusion and an Equity Officer position. Further, the board has approved funding to hire a consultant to create a racial equity work plan that is specific to the county.
Turner said equity has also played a “major role” in how the county has responded to the COVID-19 health crisis.
“The county has proactively partnered with over 70 community organizations to reach Loudoun County’s Spanish-speaking residents with important information related to the pandemic,” she said. She added the county recently began a book club in which participants could enjoy a “safe space” to discuss matters of racial equity and disparity.
“Race can no longer be the elephant in the room, and we have to get to a point where we can be comfortable with being uncomfortable, to have these tough conversations,” Turner said.
Other agenda items Monday included an action item outlining a proposed protocol for staff attendance at various meetings involving both LCPS and the county government, which LCPS Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Kevin Lewis presented. Committee members in attendance approved the protocol unanimously.
Monday’s joint committee meeting is available to view in full at bit.ly/37oJF2l.