During its Monday meeting — which ran an unprecedented nine-plus hours and leaked well into Tuesday morning — the Loudoun County School Board passed a resolution supporting a hybrid learning model for Loudoun County Public Schools’ coming fall semester, should the third phase of the “Forward Virginia” reopening plan still be in place.
The staggered scheduling solution, which will have most students attending school in-person two days a week, provides an opportunity for parents uncomfortable sending their children to school buildings to opt out in favor of 100 percent distance learning.
Prior to the board’s vote, LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams and other members of senior staff presented extensive details regarding next year’s return to school should the draft resolution ultimately go through.
Timeline for planning
According to Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis, families will be required to decide between either the hybrid or distance-learning option by July 10, and staff will be asked to identify their preference between one and the other on this date.
Each family and employee will receive a phone call and email notifying them of the deadline, as well as literature to inform their decision. While a family’s choice between hybrid and distance learning is binding, staffers’ stated preferences will not necessarily determine whether they ultimately teach in-person, long-distance or both.
Division officials will spend the weeks after July 10 identifying initial staff assignments and building school schedules, mapping transportation routes and allowing for professional development and planning time for teachers.
Board documents say the first day of the 2020-2021 school year will be Sept. 8, nearly two weeks later than the originally planned Aug. 27 start date. Teacher orientation will begin Aug. 18.
Physical distancing requirements and public health precautions
According to Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Services Asia Jones, physical distancing is the greatest component in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Board documents say parents who select the hybrid option will commit to their students wearing face coverings at school when six feet of physical distancing is not practical, as well as on the bus, barring medical complications.
Williams reviewed plans for physical distancing practices in the classroom and on school buses, which had been delineated at prior meetings. Per staff-provided diagrams, only 10 students and one teacher will fit into the average elementary school classroom with six-foot person-to-person separation in place, while the average secondary school classroom will hold 11 students and one teacher.
State officials’ guidance to schools regarding physical distancing would also mean a greatly reduced bus capacity, in which one child would sit on each seat in every other row, thus limiting the capacity of a 77-passenger bus to 13 students. Williams said this number would increase if children living together, such as siblings, were to ride the bus together, in which case those children could share a seat.
However, state guidance allows LCPS to make “limited deviations” from recommended distancing practices, which division officials have taken into consideration. For example, LCPS may reduce the space between seats in classrooms to allow 17 students to fit in the average elementary-school classroom. In addition, buses may allow one passenger in every row — not every other row — which would increase a 77-passenger bus’ capacity from 13 to 26.
Further, LCPS may implement limited public health mitigation strategies beyond state guidance. This activity may include limited groups of students and staff participating in touchless temperature checks, as well as requiring staff members to take their temperatures at home before showing up to work.
Barring the introduction of a vaccine, Jones said physical distancing measures will likely remain in place at least through the coming winter, though they could change as school officials learn more about the virus’ transmission over the next few months.
Plan for potential COVID-19 exposure in schools
Board members and public commenters alike have raised concerns over the last few weeks regarding the division’s process for when a student or staff member contracts COVID-19. This matter was particularly pressing Monday evening, as news of a spike in cases among younger Loudoun residents broke several hours prior.
Jones said the Loudoun County Health Department will contact LCPS Student Health Services once it becomes aware of a potential in-school exposure to the virus. From there, the agency will help identify close contacts of the infected person or persons, though Jones acknowledged up to three days’ lag time may exist between a positive test and a determined risk to others in the school.
Once close contacts are identified, Jones said the LCHD would work with the school in question and SHS to determine which other students and staff members should self-quarantine at home. However, should an ongoing transmission of COVID-19 occur within a school, the Health Department may recommend a temporary school closure.
Distance learning details
Earlier in the meeting, Ellis presented the results of an LCPS parent and staff survey that was distributed June 19. The results indicate one-third of responding parents would likely choose 100 percent distance learning for their children.
Though Williams said this metric would reduce the number of classrooms needed to provide in-person learning, it would not offer enough space for 100 percent in-person learning for those who do not opt out, given the space-limiting nature of physical distancing measures.
However, the superintendent said the reduced number of classrooms needed for in-person learning would allow LCPS to create satellite classrooms based on grade level in elementary schools and content area in secondary schools, thus increasing adherence to physical distancing practices.
Within these satellite classrooms, teachers would be able to arrange a series of small-group instruction sessions similar to practices used before the indefinite school closure period. Williams said teacher assistants, as well as special-education, gifted-education or reading teachers, would collaborate with classroom teachers to facilitate learning in satellite classrooms.
Per Ellis, students in the 100 percent distance-learning program will be placed in virtual classes by grade level and school, though exceptions may include distance-learning classes at smaller schools, middle- and high-school electives, and Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment courses.
Kindergarten distance-learning classes will include no more than 29 students, board documents say. Classes in grades 1-3 will not exceed 30 students, while grades 4-6 will not surpass a class size of 35. Further, secondary English classes will include no more than 24 students, though staff did not specify limits for other middle- and high-school subjects.
Child care planning
Though no solid plans are currently in place for LCPS-provided child care services, Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Kevin Lewis said division officials are planning a multi-step collaboration with both LCPS and Loudoun County staffers to identify the extent of the issue. Via a joint survey, Lewis said LCPS plans to determine the number and age demographics of children for whom LCPS would provide care, as well as needs regarding staffing and special-needs services.
LCPS will hold an electronic town hall for families July 8 from 5:30 to 7 p.m, and another for staff members on a date to be announced. Williams said the family town hall will take place via Cisco WebEx — just as School Board meetings have during the COVID-19 closure period — and LCPS will announce further registration details later this week.
The board ultimately voted 5-3-1 in favor of the aforementioned resolution, with Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District), Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District), Beth Barts (Leesburg District), Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) and Leslee King (Broad Run District) voting yes.
Monday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/432888169.