School reopening decision expected July 30

Published 3:13 am Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Isle of Wight County Schools officials expect to decide on July 30 how they will reopen in the fall.

In the meantime, Superintendent Dr. James Thornton said nearly two dozen subcommittees are working on the details — everything from athletics and food service to transportation and communication — of how to reopen school this fall under various scheduling and capacity scenarios.

According to a recent parent and staff survey, 71% of parents would support the school division requesting state permission to open without schedule restrictions. The survey also showed that if Virginia were under Phase 3 guidelines and the state OK’d Monday through Friday attendance for Isle of Wight, 70% of parents would send their kids to school if given the option. However, almost 26% of parents said they would request a distance learning option rather than return their children to the classroom in that scenario. 

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Nearly 52% of about 2,300 survey respondents said they would prefer an alternating A/B-style schedule where students would be divided into two groups and attend on alternating days. About 19% would prefer a consecutive day schedule, 16% an alternating week schedule, and 13% would want completely virtual learning.

And if Virginia is under Phase 3 guidelines when school opens this fall and Isle of Wight students would be required to attend school under a limited in-person schedule, 79.5 percent of those surveyed said they would send their kids to school.

About 59% of school division staff members surveyed said that “no current issues” would prevent them from returning to work in the fall; however 26.6% of staff said they had concerns about the health of a family member and 22.7% said they were concerned about their own health issues that might affect their ability to return to work. However, nearly 94% of staff said they would return to their position if school reopened on a full-time basis, and 95 percent of division employees would return to work if schools operated at reduced capacity on an alternative schedule.

Based on the survey results, the division is planning for four instructional options in the fall — full virtual school, an A/B schedule, a four-day week or a regular five-day week with virtual learning also available along with the in-person options.

With so many unknowns and variables related to reopening schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, “we have to have these plans because we don’t know what the state is going to do,” Thornton said at a July 1 school board meeting called to publicly discuss the survey results and the division’s plans for the 2020-2021 school year.

“If the governor shuts down schools again, we have to have a full virtual plan — not what we did this spring,” Thornton said. 

Even though the majority of the division’s students might return under an alternating schedule, “we could be looking at 1,300 students that will be all virtual as well.” Furthermore, based on the number of people who choose online school, “we’re looking now at the option, too, of a four-day week, to give our teachers all day Friday to plan.”

Isle of Wight public schools had a student enrollment of 5,466 at the end of the 2019-2020 year and as of July 1, had approximately 700 full and part-time employees, excluding coaches, according to division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics said the organization “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” 

However, being physically present poses many logistical and even legal liability concerns, should anyone become ill from COVID-19, Thornton told board members and staff, who met in person and socially distanced in the Westside Elementary School cafeteria. The meeting was also live on social media.

Looking ahead, the board plans to review information gathered by the subcommittees on July 23, one week ahead of making a reopening decision.

Thornton also suggested the division host a non-traditional open house during the first week of August, where school officials can have a firsthand opportunity to show and tell the community about the health and safety measures they’re implementing to control the spread of COVID-19.

Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr said she has read pages of comments about the pending decisions and is empathetic to everyone’s concerns and expectations. Planning for full virtual online learning no matter what provides an option for parents who aren’t comfortable sending their children to school for in-person teaching. Still, she acknowledged that regardless of whatever decisions are made, it’s not possible to satisfy everyone. 

On deciding when and how to start school, “it’s a huge responsibility that none of us take lightly,” Carr said.