After hours of deliberation, the Loudoun County School Board voted early Wednesday to direct Loudoun County Public Schools administrators to implement a 100 percent distance learning model for the return to classes in the fall.
Earlier in Tuesday’s School Board meeting — which ran past 1 a.m. the next day — LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams told board members the division believes full-time remote learning is the best back-to-school option in the face of the COVID-19 health crisis.
While Williams’ recommendation contravened the board’s June 29 vote to implement a hybrid instructional model with a 100 percent distance-learning option, he emphasized the pandemic’s erratic nature means no board decision regarding the return to classes is guaranteed to be permanent.
“LCPS has consistently emphasized that decisions will be based on conditions, and that plans are subject to change given how much is unknown,” Williams said. He added staff’s reasoning is based on processing time for local COVID-19 tests, insights from school-level planners, data relating to child care and other concerns.
Per staff’s suggestion and the board’s eventual vote, the originally planned hybrid model will instead be implemented in stages, though the specifics of those stages have yet to be delineated.
In his presentation, the superintendent said this staged implementation would help the division consistently uphold public health precautions, provide more consistent instruction for students and increase the likelihood of meeting staffing needs, among other forecasted benefits.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis followed Williams, presenting a rundown of progress and challenges with planning for both hybrid and distance learning procedures. The greatest shortcoming of the hybrid model, she said, is that it is “impossible for [LCPS] to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 within schools and administrative offices.”
“I think we need to be really realistic about that,” Ellis added.
Meanwhile, she said many Loudoun teachers and school principals are optimistic about distance learning — though, as indicated at last week’s Loudoun Education Association-hosted ”Solidarity for Safety” rally, some are not so much optimistic as they are adamant.
“With the hybrid model, there are too many unanswered questions,” incoming LEA President Sandy Sullivan said during Tuesday’s public comment section. “Now is the time to fully focus on making distance learning successful ... and ensuring all our students’ needs are met through distance learning.”
However, staff outlined plenty of obstacles in planning for 100 percent remote instruction, such as the conduction of courses requiring in-person, hands-on learning experience or face-to-face assessments. These include some special education programs and a number of classes offered at the Academies of Loudoun, the latter being pointed out by public commenter Christina Zamora, who is enrolled in AoL’s Monroe Advanced Technical Academy.
“After much hard work, I was admitted to the cosmetology program at MATA,” she said. “Please allow full, in-person learning for this program, or at least a hybrid program. Without this program, I will not have the education I need to pursue my career upon graduation.”
The board member most vocally opposed to implementing full-time distance learning was Jeff Morse (Dulles District). While he said he would support a return to remote instruction should a COVID “hotspot” occur within a school building during the fall, he opined to ultimately not allow families to determine their children’s learning models would be “a grave injustice.”
“Simply stated, a child this semester, or possibly even this year, will never meet their teacher, not even with a mask. That is devastating for our children,” Morse said. “We aren’t using numbers anymore, we’re not using facts, we’re using feelings and sentiments. It’s emotionally charged, and I understand that, but students who need more than two days [of in-person instruction] are now going to get zero days of classroom assistance.”
Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) vocalized confliction on the matter. While he acknowledged the health and safety advantages of remote learning, he expressed concern with the challenges and lack of equity potentially posed to special-education students, English-learning students, families with working parents and those without access to wireless internet, among others.
“If we move to 100 percent distance learning, unless the plan accounts for these situations, we’re going to be trading one set of problems for another,” he said. “Maybe this is the least bad solution, but I’m very concerned that we will not be providing an education for many of our most vulnerable students until we can get them back in the classroom.”
However, several others said the board’s top priority should be taking whatever steps necessary to keep students and staff safe, and that the only certain means of doing so would be to keep them out of buildings. Beth Barts (Leesburg District) — who earlier this week stated her intent to make the motion to implement full distance learning — was one such proponent.
“It’s been really hard on all of us to try to come up with answers, as far as meeting the needs — emotional and academic — of our families. But I have to always focus on safety,” she said. “We’ve spent millions … of dollars on security in our buildings, because the No. 1 fear for a lot of us is the thought of an intruder entering our schools. We trust our schools to keep our children safe.”
“For me, this is not a question of what plan is better; it’s more about life and death,” Denise Corbo (At-Large) added. “Schools and students are just not designed for COVID. We know that, but we have to be prepared. Otherwise, we’re going to have to be prepared for loss of life.”
Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn District) made the eventual motion to enforce the distance learning model, seconded by Barts. Around 12:40 a.m., after a final bout of discussions, the motion passed 7-2, with Morse and John Beatty (Catoctin District) opposed.
The vote comes one week after the deadline by which LCPS asked families and teaching staff to indicate whether they wanted to return to classes via the hybrid learning model or distance learning option.
Tuesday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/440630581.____________
This story has been updated from the initial news alert.