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IW schools decide on reopening

Isle of Wight schools will reopen Sept. 8 with the option of two days a week in-person teaching supplemented with virtual learning for elementary and middle school students, while the county’s high schoolers will start the year with 100% virtual learning.

The school board’s 3-2 decision came at the end of a July 30 meeting that followed weeks of parent and teacher surveys, public comment sessions, and research, planning and input from school division staff members and health experts on the best way to restart school during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr introduced the motion to open elementary and middle schools on a blended instructional model, with parents able to choose between 100% virtual learning or attending school two days a week on an A/B schedule, where one group of students would be in school on Monday and Wednesday, and another group on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday would be reserved for teacher planning. The board would revisit the decision on high school after the first nine weeks.

Carr, Vice Chairwoman Julia Perkins and board member Alvin Wilson voted yes, while members Vicky Hulick and Denise Tynes voted no. Following the initial vote, the board unanimously passed an amended motion to allow career and technical education students to participate in the hybrid schedule. That change allows high school students in that program to continue hands-on learning in courses such as welding and building trades.

Previously, school officials announced four instructional options — full virtual school, an alternating schedule, a four-day week or a regular five-day week with virtual learning available. The board’s decision affects about 5,500 students and 700 full and part-time employees.

Parents must decide by Aug. 10 what they want to do. Carr’s motion was the only one considered before the board made a decision. Before voting, all five members of the board, who met publicly in person and socially distanced at Westside Elementary School, discussed what factors were influencing their decision.

Tynes expressed concern about the prevalence of the virus locally and said she doesn’t want school officials to have to send condolences to the families of any student or staff member. She also said some parents are hoping for a return to classrooms for the wrong reasons.

“Some parents need us to be their babysitting services. We are not a babysitting service. We are an institution of learning. … If you fail to get babysitting services for your children, Isle of Wight County Schools will not be it, OK?” But Tynes added, for people who do need assistance with social services, the division is able to point people in the right direction.

“I do feel that virtually for the first nine weeks is the most prudent. … If we have concerns for our high school students going back and being virtual, why are our elementary students OK to go back for that nine weeks?” Hulick asked.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton explained the reasoning behind the grade level-based plan.

“We are currently in Phase 3. But in the governor’s plan, in Phase 2, if you socially distance, which could mean A/B, they are recommending (grades) pre-K through 3 and special education students attend in a socially distanced environment because it’s basically been proven that they’re the most difficult to educate virtually,” Thornton said.

Speaking before the board’s vote, Carr acknowledged the difficulty and gravity of the decision.

“We have parents and teachers who feel the time is not right to go back to school for in-person learning and their feelings are real and their feelings are to be respected,” said Carr. On the other hand, “there are those who do not express fear but acknowledge that risks are always present and want to return to school for in-person learning, but within a safe and healthy learning environment, knowing things will not be as they were, things will not look the same, routines and procedures will be different. Their feelings are real and are to be respected.”

The school division will hold informational meetings to discuss the reopening plan at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Aug. 5, at Georgie Tyler Middle School, and 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at Westside Elementary School. The meetings will be streamed live on the school system’s Facebook and YouTube pages.