It was a longer night than usual for the Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday as it continued to deliberate the best course of action for returning to school next year, in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam's "Forward Virginia" reopening plan.
Last week, Loudoun County Public Schools staff presented a preliminary outline for learning during the 2020-2021 school year. Per these drafted guidelines, under Forward Virginia "Phase 3," most students would alternate between three days of distance learning and two days of in-person learning each week, as to exhibit proper physical distancing measures would mean greatly reducing classroom capacity.
Many LCPS students and stakeholders have lambasted this hybrid learning plan, with about 75 parents and students protesting outside the district's administration building on Monday as a result of these frustrations.
In turn, dozens of citizens were slated to offer public comment as the evening began. Though not all of the nearly 130 people who signed up to address the School Board ended up doing so, those who did still handily filled the meeting's first two hours.
A majority of commenters expressed their desire for 100 percent in-person learning next year, with a 100 percent distance-learning option for families who are uncomfortable sending their kids back to school buildings. Several argued the importance of in-person learning to students' mental health, including Sydney Sykes, a rising junior at John Champe High School.
"We cannot continue to learn like this. We cannot be isolated from our classmates and peers," she said. "We as students have been told our entire lives to get away from technology and away from our devices, but now you're telling us that we can't be around other people, and that we are forced to learn from our devices. It's super contradicting."
"What you're basically hearing is parents that are afraid of a repeat of fourth quarter," former School Board Algonkian District Representative Debbie Rose said. "The distance learning didn't work, and our kids suffered major negative mental-health impacts. It was horrible. This deserves more consideration than just a bullet point and a power point."
Conversely, several commenters urged division staff to base their judgments primarily on the advice of scientific experts rather than public opinion, arguing a return to in-person learning, while convenient, would further propagate COVID-19 cases among students and staff at this point.
"LCPS should be fully aware that our current shutdown is the expected intervention to slow the spread of a severe pandemic virus," former Loudoun County employee Larry Matheny, who participated in health-crisis planning before his retirement, said. "Returning to 100 percent in-person learning, or hybrid learning, implies that we believe we are in a recovery phase. We are not in a recovery phase. These options unnecessarily expose our students and teachers, and ultimately our larger community, to the spread of COVID-19."
Others, even some in support of the hybrid-learning plan, expressed concern with the lack of solid details provided by LCPS staff.
"I do support the blended learning experience," Tisha Downs said. "However, the return-to-school plan does not have details to it, and that is what I believe is making our community very anxious. We don't know what the day in the life of the student or teachers will hold."
However, little new information or suggestions came from LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams, who instead presented the board with a four-page draft resolution stating the board's "preference for 100% in-person learning," as well as its endorsement of "concepts regarding distance learning" and "the operation of schools during Phase III."
"I'm asking that you endorse these concepts, because that will provide clarity for staff in moving forward with planning this summer, in order to be prepared for the opening of the school year," Williams said.
During a nearly 50-minute presentation of his proposed resolution, Williams said while he wishes LCPS could reimplement uniform in-person learning, he and staff are not comfortable with more than a small degree of deviation from guidance provided by public health officials, paraphrasing Loudoun County Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend.
"He explicitly stated that he does not see an ability to provide in-person learning for students five days a week and generally adhere to the guidance," Williams said. "While we have the ability to submit a notification of intent to vary from the guidance, it does require consultation with attorneys and with local health officials. Can we choose to ignore attorneys and local health officials? Yes we can. That's not our recommendation."
Williams largely reiterated information presented last week regarding student schedules, work expectations and on-campus physical distancing measures. Later Tuesday night, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis said staff adjusted draft guidelines since last week to make Mondays days for synchronous distance learning rather than Fridays.
Still, Williams' presentation and stated resolve to make the best, most health- and learning-conscious choices for the LCPS community did not stop a barrage of questions from board members, several of whom bemoaned the lack of additional planning details provided after last week's meeting. Jeff Morse (Dulles District) was perhaps most blunt in his disappointment.
"I kind of felt like a pig being led to slaughter," he said of Williams' presentation. "You were just kind of providing the corn as we get closer and closer."
Morse's main complaint was Williams' failure to address mental health concerns, saying to simply follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is insufficient when it comes to students' emotional well-being. He expressed further concern that a hybrid schedule would cause cross-contamination among students who are in school buildings some days and in other, germ-infested environments such as day cares other days.
"The last time CDC even had a study on mental health was 2017," Morse said. "That is not their forté ... It looks like we're picking and choosing the safety features that we're interested in."
Williams responded, "What I'm wondering is, 'Mr. Morse may not be buying the notion that we should follow the guidance of local, state and national public health officials, because he believes they are not putting enough emphasis on mental health.' … I am not saying that mental wellness is not important, those can bring up aspects that are complicated, but at the end of the day what I've recommended is generally complying with the recommendations of local, state and national health officials."
When Beth Barts (Leesburg District) raised doubts as to whether teachers — particularly at the elementary level — will be able to accommodate students learning both in person and from home, Williams said he and staff "have much more confidence about our ability to do that."
"I am hesitant to give a blanket promise on that, but that's an example of a concept you could endorse, and that's different than issuing a directive saying, 'Thou shalt never do this,'" he added.
Barts countered with a question regarding the resolution's overall goal and effectiveness, saying it seemed like "pretty much just a list of us saying what we'd like to see, and then you do the best you can to implement it. That's it, pretty much, isn't it?"
"Yes, but I want to emphasize we take it the concepts very seriously, so I don't want to under-describe the significance of it, because it is important, and without those endorsements it kind of leaves us hanging, not knowing where you'd like us to go," Williams answered.
Further doubt regarding the resolution came from Denise Corbo (At-Large), who opined the board would not have full assurance in endorsing its various concepts before receiving the results of a community survey LCPS distributed last week.
"Our job is to ask the questions, and also to advocate for changes if need be," Corbo said. "We don't have the most critical decision-making information. We don't have the survey results from the parents and the staff, and that should be … the key component in how we're driving this situation and how we're making our decisions. … I don't feel like I can approve any resolution without that critical information."
Corbo then cited a survey from the Loudoun Education Association which said approximately one-quarter of participating LCPS teachers do not feel comfortable or safe returning to school, and further noted the division's lack of a plan for when a teacher or a student tests positive for COVID-19 during next school year.
"I think that is something that we need to put our time and energy into: our protocols, the safety and the hygiene of our staff and our students," she said.
"Your comments resonate with me when you speak about the important role of the board in asking questions and influencing actions, so for me the purpose of this resolution is to give us the direction we should be heading," the superintendent replied. He added staff intends on Monday to release the results of the survey, which will then be factored into the board's actions regarding the resolution.
"I'm really not even sure we need a resolution; we're spending so much time with this," Corbo said before proposing that the board continues to meet once a week during July, rather than taking its typical hiatus for the month.
Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) concurred with Williams' view that a resolution will lay down a foundation for the division's future actions, saying it is "vital that the board weigh in at this juncture, when we're sitting right around two months before the scheduled first day of school, in order to provide the superintendent the feedback he has requested of us."
He continued, "Until we actually take some sort of vote and five of us agree on something, we're not providing any direction at all, and given where we are right now, two months out, there's only so much longer that we can go before I think it will start creating serious problems. The alternative is that the superintendent and the staff just continue to go down the road they're doing without the board weighing in, and I think the longer we go without providing formal feedback, the worse position we'll be in and the more likely it is that we're going to have to make last-minute changes, or that it will be effectively too late for us to meaningfully weigh in, because there won't be time to make the changes we're requesting."
Williams acknowledged the pressing nature of the board's many concerns, but emphasized the level of difficulty in addressing them all in the limited time before next year.
"There's all these competing needs and priorities, and as some public speakers have observed, you can't make everybody happy," he said.
Tuesday's meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/432113742.