The effect of COVID-19 on students' grades, spectator limits at athletic events and what lies ahead for the return to classrooms were among the topics covered during the Loudoun County School Board's Tuesday meeting.
Loudoun County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis presented to the board a pair of tables comparing letter grade distribution for middle- and high-school students during Marking Period 2 of the current academic year compared to the previous two academic years. While the number of As received by high schoolers increased by 5.1 percent compared to the 2018-2019 school year, middle schoolers saw a 0.9 percent decrease in As since then.
Most concerning, to the board, however, was the increase in Fs, with both middle school and high school demonstrating a 3.1 percent uptick since the 2018-2019 school year. This, along with the assumed challenges special-needs students and English learners have endured while learning from home, led LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler to suppose that more families than usual will request their children attend summer school later this year.
"We haven't yet received those requests, but we do anticipate that there will be an increased need for summer school this year," he said.
Responding to a question from board member Jeff Morse (Dulles District), Ziegler said funds for LCPS's expanded summer school program will be available from the commonwealth, as announced last week by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), though the parameters for applying for those grants remain unclear. The school system in its recently-adopted FY22 budget allocated $7.7 million for expanded summer school, particularly to include transportation to and from in-person learning sites, but Morse expressed concern that this amount would not be sufficient to compensate teachers and other staff for putting in extra summer hours.
Ziegler said a detailed presentation regarding plans for summer school will come before the board during its March 9 meeting, adding that the school system plans to host elementary, special-education and English-learning students in person for that program. For secondary students, expanded summer education is to include material focused on credit recovery and acceleration, as well as recovery of concepts students might not have substantially picked up during distance learning.
Further, with LCPS scheduled to begin its return to hybrid in-person learning Feb. 16, the interim superintendent said the board can expect a formal review of the school system's health mitigation efforts and in-school transmission statistics no later than March 31. That evaluation will likely precede discussions of expanded in-person learning, and Ziegler supposed LCPS might be able to go from two days of in-person instruction per week — as is the case with the coming hybrid learning model — to four days "on a very short timeline," if health metrics look promising.
"We really need to have a handle on what's happening in transmission in our schools and make sure that our mitigation methods, which we believe are the safer way to return to in-person learning … to evaluate those at the macro level, present information to the board, and if that information is favorable, then I would anticipate coming forth with a possibility," he said. He later added he expects a plan for instruction next fall will come before the board no later than May 1.
As of Tuesday, LCPS has detected 21 total transmission incidents within school facilities, most of which involve staff-to-staff transmissions and spread during athletic events. The latter have consisted of staffers and students coming down with COVID-19, as LCPS athletic events currently do not allow spectators regardless of whether they take place indoors or outdoors.
Currently, all athletes, coaches and others involved are required to wear face masks during practices and competitions, with limited exceptions for certain sports. Should either core indicator of community spread in Loudoun — case incidence rate or percent positivity — fall below the school system's "lowest risk level" for five consecutive work days, students will be able to shed their masks during outdoor competitions.
Based on guidance from the Virginia High School League, LCPS staff recommends that once hybrid learning restarts Feb. 16, one spectator per athlete or performer be allowed to attend indoor sporting events — not to exceed 25 spectators in total — while two spectators per athlete or performer be allowed for outdoor events. However, per VHSL restrictions, spectators will not be allowed at regional or state competitions, with the exception of basketball at the state level.
While acknowledging that LCPS has no discretion over spectator restrictions at regional and state competitions, Morse lamented parents having to forgo watching their children advance to such highly coveted events.
"I want to express the regret of so many families that they will not be able to attend a state championship with their child," he said. "Having been in that moment with my child, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's devastating to think that your child makes it all the way to the state tournament and then the parents would not be able to watch it live."