After two months of virtual classes across the board, Loudoun County Public Schools will resume the implementation of its hybrid in-person learning model no later than Feb. 16, with all grade levels set to be back in the classroom part-time by March 3.
The School Board voted 8-1 on the measure during its Tuesday meeting, with Denise Corbo (At-Large) the sole opponent. Roughly three hours of public comment preceded the vote, with many participants lamenting the difficulties they and their families have encountered during distance learning.
Feb. 16 will have students in the first three stages of the school system’s hybrid implementation plan return to school buildings. These include grades 1 through 5, preschool, pre-K and kindergarten, as well as certain students with disabilities, English learners and Academies of Loudoun attendees.
“Stage 4” of hybrid implementation includes all students in grades 6 through 12, who are scheduled to return no later than March 3. The return to hybrid learning only applies to students whose families selected hybrid learning for the spring semester in a survey distributed earlier this year.
After making the motion, Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) argued his belief that LCPS is ready to resume hybrid learning based on recently updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to safely conduct in-person learning. According to these guidelines, the two CDC core metrics of COVID-19 community spread in Loudoun County — number of cases per 100,000 people and percent positivity — are now considered secondary to the likelihood of coronavirus spread at the classroom and school level.
“The guidance for reopening safely is clear and unambiguous and supported by overwhelming scientific research,” said Serotkin, who also cited recent guidance from the Virginia Department of Education, the Virginia Department of Health and the Loudoun County Health Department.
He continued, “There are really only two steps: step one, put the appropriate mitigation strategies in place; step two, open the schools for instruction. For step one, we have met and, in some cases gone above and beyond the VDH five key mitigation strategies for safe in-person instruction — 6 feet of distancing, masks required for everyone, improved filtration systems, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, contact tracing. It is time for step two.”
Jeff Morse (Dulles District), who seconded Serotkin’s motion, spoke to the importance of LCPS community members maintaining health mitigation strategies once hybrid learning resumes, even as LCPS continues its steady rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine to its employees. He and Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) particularly praised the utility of some of the school system’s more creative measures for upholding health mitigation measures, including a web-based tool by which community members can report incidents of those measures being violated.
“The feedback was, prior to the vaccine even rolling out, that school environments were somewhat safer than the community environments when protocols were in place,” Morse said. “I think the superintendent’s authority will take care of the issues when they pop up, and I have full faith and confidence in the staff that we will continue to pursue all the protocols, to keep our staff, our educators and our students safe.”
However, Corbo and Beth Barts (Leesburg District) were concerned about whether the vaccine rollout — particularly the administration of booster shots — would conflict with the proposed dates for reopening, and whether teachers scheduled to receive shots during their class periods would be majorly inconvenienced. Corbo also expressed doubt as to the safety of reopening classrooms before all instructors are vaccinated.
To the question of scheduling issues, LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler said the overlap of classes and vaccination appointments “is going to be a difficulty,” though not an insurmountable one.
“It won’t be popular, but there may be times when teachers are asked to cover a class during their planning time … so that their colleague can go and get the vaccine,” he said. “We know that getting the vaccine is important to our teachers, we know it’s important to our teachers’ organization, so we are hoping that they will partner with us and make it possible for them to go.”
Loudoun County Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend virtually attended the meeting and told Corbo he would not advise LCPS to wait to open schools until all instructional staff are vaccinated.
“We know these vaccines are tremendously effective at preventing people from getting hospitalized, at preventing people from getting sick. We don’t know how good at all they are at preventing people from getting infected or spreading infection,” he said. “I would not put off having folks come back in to wait until folks are vaccinated, because as I said, it may have an impact on disease transmission … but we don’t know that. Folks still need to do all the mitigating factors that have kept them safe so far.”
Answering a later question from Corbo, the health director said he overall felt comfortable with the idea of bringing students back to school at the proposed time, including his own children who attend LCPS, though he advised parents to remain alert as to whether schools are indeed following proper mitigation protocol.
Still, Barts moved to amend Serotkin’s base motion so all students would not be able to reenter hybrid learning until March 3, citing her wish to have as many employees as possible fully vaccinated. That amendment failed 2-7, with only Barts and Corbo in favor.
While previous School Board votes regarding the return to the classroom amid COVID-19 have proven polarizing, most members — even those who have been particularly cautious in the past — were largely assuaged by school system’s success in administering the vaccine, as well as the recent updates to CDC guidelines, when voting on Tuesday. One such member was Sheridan, who said her vote in favor of Serotkin’s motion “may come as a surprise” to both her colleagues and the LCPS community.
“My main concerns have been not alleviated, but as close as we can be in this unknown situation we’re dealing with,” the chairwoman said. “I encourage anyone, if a mitigation practice is not being followed, please report it.”
She concluded her remarks by lauding the efforts of LCPS educators amid the challenges of the pandemic, calling them “heroes” and apologizing for the criticism they have received from the community since full in-person learning ceased almost a year ago. As the county’s teacher union, the Loudoun Education Association, has frequently advocated for the continuation of distance learning in order to keep teachers — particularly those at high risk of contracting COVID-19 — safe, some stakeholders have accused educators of shirking their duties in teaching the county’s children.
“I had hoped after 20 years of being an education advocate that our educators had finally gotten the respect they deserved, but we’re in a pandemic, and unfortunately, throughout this time educators have again fallen off the pedestals you fully deserve to be placed upon,” she said. “Please know there are many who do appreciate that you continue to put our children first under the worst conditions. I’m extremely grateful to all of you as professionals, every single one of you. Thank you so much, and we’re asking for more, and we will do everything we can to keep you safe.”
Before the vote, Corbo explained her rationale for opposing Serotkin’s motion, largely citing the failure of Barts’ proposed amendment.
“I am not going to support this, not because I don’t want children back in school — I do — but I feel that the March 3 [start date] would have given that gift of time to ensure that our vaccines were in place and for other reasons as well,” she said. “I just feel like giving our elementary staff members a little bit of time would make all the difference to them, and that will parlay to our students as well.”
With the measure passed, many LCPS students will be learning inside a classroom for the first time since schools shut down on March 12 of last year.