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IW schools revisit reopening decision

The Isle of Wight County School Board plans to rescind its decision to reopen schools for two days a week of in-person teaching for elementary and middle school students, according to an announcement made one day after the decision.

The upcoming meeting, which is open to the public, is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 3 in the cafeteria at Westside Elementary School, 800 W. Main St., Smithfield. Attendees should enter through the building’s front door and face coverings are required. The meeting will also be live streamed on the school division’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.At a July 30 meeting, the board voted 3-2 for the two-day-a-week, alternating schedule, where one group of students would attend on Monday and Wednesday and the other group on Tuesday and Thursday. High school students were to start the year with 100% virtual learning, a decision the board intended to revisit after the first nine weeks of school, which is scheduled to start Sept. 8.

The school division has worked for weeks conducting parent and teacher surveys, public comment sessions and staff research to create a plan to reopen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Isle of Wight’s announcement did not give a reason why the board intends to withdraw its decision; however, many other public school divisions in the region have chosen to start the year online only. In response to a request for comment, David Elliott, a school division spokesman, said in an email that the previously unscheduled Aug. 3 meeting “was called by the chair of the board at the request of three members of the board.”

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 alternating A/B schedule. Carr’s motion was the only one considered before the board made a decision.

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 are supposed to decide by Aug. 10 what they want to do. 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.”

Elliott said regardless of the Aug. 3 meeting’s outcome, the school division intends to 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.