As part of its 2020 PolicyMaker seminar series, the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce welcomed Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams and Northern Virginia Community College Loudoun Campus Provost Julie Leidig as featured speakers for its “State of Education” webinar Wednesday morning.
Sponsored primarily by Inova Loudoun Hospital and Telos Corporation, the event was originally meant to focus on Virginia’s “Tech-Talent Pipeline,” through which STEM-focused students in the commonwealth are propelled into its ever-growing tech industry.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced public education to rapidly change gears and go fully virtual in March, event organizers pivoted the subject to how LCPS and NOVA are strategizing next month’s return to classes to ensure high-quality education for students, while also keeping them and faculty members safe.
Stacey Metcalfe, who works in government and community relations for Inova and serves as chairwoman of the Loudoun Chamber board, hosted the virtual event and first introduced Leidig, who explained the impact of coronavirus on NOVA’s operations in the spring before detailing its planned services in the fall.
Per Leidig, NOVA was “one of the earliest” regional institutions to have specialized in asynchronous virtual education through its NOVA Online program, but it is largely new to “synchronous, in-real-time online learning of the type that you would do over Zoom.”
“We started our spring break thinking we might have to go remote, and then by the end of our spring break we had decided that everything was going to have to go remote,” she explained.
Leidig said NOVA students’ spring break was extended by a mere two days, during which time all teachers had to prepare to resume the semester in a fully virtual setting.
“Everyone who wasn’t already ready to teach from home had to come to our campus, get a laptop, get any training that they needed in order to teach from home,” she said. “We were transitioned to fully remote learning by March 18.”
NOVA students have multiple options for resuming classes in the coming semester, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 24. The majority of courses will be offered through NOVA Online or synchronous delivery via Zoom, though pupils will be able to determine how much of their instruction takes place in person or virtually.
Many on-campus student services will continue to operate with limited hours and social-distancing restrictions this fall, including computer labs, libraries, bookstores, cafés, personal protective equipment distribution, parking and student identification services.
Leidig also addressed the topic of students considering a gap year, an option she discourages.
“Students don’t know what they want to do at this time, because they had big plans and they feel like their plans were blown up,” she said. “If you are familiar with students in that situation … encourage them [to] go ahead, move forward with their education, get more comfortable with the online learning environment, and make sure that when things come back to a more normal setting, they’re in a good position to move forward.
Williams followed, detailing the various elements of LCPS’s 100 percent distance-learning model with limited exceptions, as well as its plans to implement a four-stage hybrid learning model later in the fall.
Just 12 hours prior, per the recommendation of Williams and other senior staff, the Loudoun County School Board voted to include a select group of special-education students to enter a remote learning model by Oct. 13 in “Stage 1” of that process, as well as certain English learners and preschool students no later than Oct. 27.
About 900 students at the Academies of Loudoun’s Monroe Advanced Technical Academy will also be permitted to return in a hybrid model on the first day of school Sept. 8, as many of MATA’s courses involve hands-on instruction.
“Yes, our preference would be for 100 percent in-person learning for all students, safely delivered, and while that’s not where we are, we’re incredibly enthusiastic about the start of a new school year,” Williams said in his opening remarks Wednesday. “Teachers can’t wait to meet their kids, principals are excited that teachers are back to work this week.”
According to the superintendent, LCPS staff’s four key components in planning for the new school year include: wellness, including students’ and staffers’ physical and social-emotional prosperity; deeper learning, which Williams described as real-world application of learned material; culture, which involves community care and a “whole-child approach;” and operations and systems — “organizing our people, time and resources for success.”
The superintendent then introduced three division principals — Robert Marple of Cedar Lane Elementary, Renée Dawson of Brambleton Middle and Sheila Alzate of Briar Woods High — who presented brief slideshows demonstrating their schools’ implementation of these four key components.
Metcalfe spent the back half of the program conducting a question-and-answer session with the visiting educators, accepting questions from spectators via Zoom instant message.
Williams responded to the first question, which asked how much weight feedback from LCPS families and community members plays in the back-to-school decision-making process.
The subject of community involvement has been prevalent for Williams and LCPS senior staff, particularly following the School Board’s July 22 vote to begin the school year fully virtually, which contravened its earlier decision to start in a hybrid model with a 100 percent distance-learning option.
The July 22 vote also effectively nullified the previous process by which families and employees indicated whether they wished to return to school partially in person or entirely remote.
“Community feedback regarding distance learning experiences led to changes to how we wanted to approach distance learning this fall,” he said. “At the end of the day though, in terms of decisions about safety, we need to be driven by data, not only about public health measures, but also in terms of data to be able to operate schools effectively, relating to staffing needs, supplies, consistency of public health mitigation practices.”
He and Leidig also responded to questions regarding achievement gaps within their institutions’ respective student bodies. For NOVA, this involved — among other efforts — increasing the number of courses with remote-learning options, particularly in predominately hands-on fields.
“As a college, we are re-centering ourselves completely around equity work, because although we’ve made some progress in closing achievement gaps and so on, there’s still a lot that we need to do,” Leidig said.
Internet use for students with limited broadband access is another equity-related concern that has faced LCPS, and one which Assistant Superintendent for Digital Innovation Vince Scheivert addressed in a presentation during Tuesday’s School Board meeting, though no related board action was taken.
Per Williams, LCPS has so far distributed 1,000 Internet hotspots to families with inadequate Web access, and the school system has ordered another 800.
Further, both NOVA and LCPS have made efforts to better understand individual student, family and faculty needs, with Brambleton Middle and Cedar Lane Elementary conducting what Dawson referred to as “empathy interviews.”
“We formulated a list of things that we knew we needed to do to make sure we provided engaging and authentic lessons for kids that they would be interested in,” she said. “The work we’re doing in the fall is actually the voices of our community, which we’re really, really excited about.”
One of the most common questions addressed was what metrics educators hope to eventually see that will indicate a readiness for students to return to school in person.
“We want to start small, and then attempt to scale up,” Williams said, adding LCPS will continue to monitor local health data tracking community transmission to make decisions regarding when to implement the second, third and fourth stages of the planned hybrid model.
While, as Williams earlier remarked, LCPS aims to eventually return to in-person learning across the board, NOVA may well be looking at a post-pandemic paradigm shift.
“We are really adjusting a lot as we go along,” Leidig said. “For this fall, the rate of people signing up for asynchronous learning has skyrocketed … Once they get used to that, are they going to want to continue with more asynchronous learning in the future, and should we shift our resources more into that? We’re not expecting the post-COVID world to look exactly like the pre-COVID world, and our goal is always to meet our students where they are.”