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IW changes school plans

Isle of Wight County Schools plans to reopen this fall for two days a week of in-person teaching for Pre-K through third grade and special education students who may attend on an alternating schedule.

Fourth through 12th grade students will start the first nine weeks of the year with 100% virtual learning. That option will also be available to parents of Pre-K through third graders as well, the school board decided at an Aug. 3 meeting.

The board had voted July 30 to implement a similar plan, where Pre-K through eighth grade students would attend in person classes on an alternating schedule, while high schoolers would start the year with 100% virtual learning. However, one day after making that decision, the board announced its intent to rescind that vote in a follow up meeting.

Board member Alvin Wilson, who represents the Hardy District, cast the deciding vote at the July 30 meeting, and he also introduced the motion to rescind the earlier plan. He apologized at the start of the Aug. 3 meeting, saying in part, “I made a mistake.” Following the meeting, Wilson said he did not have any further comment beyond what he said while the board was in session.

The vote to rescind the initial school reopening plan was 3-2 with board chairwoman Jackie Carr and vice chairwoman Julia Perkins opposed. The vote to adopt the revised plan, which was suggested by Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, was unanimous. The board then amended that vote to allow career and technical education students to attend school on the alternating schedule.

“I do not agree with statements that I have read that all teachers can deliver instruction virtually,” Thornton said. “I’ve been an educator for 32 years and a superintendent for 17 years, and I challenge anyone, including my colleagues, that think they can teach reading in a totally virtual setting with pre-K through third grade students.”

The board’s decision affects about 5,500 students and about 700 full and part-time employees. The school division 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.

“To rescind the adoption of this plan means we are saying no to 60% of teachers surveyed requesting some kind of in-person learning. To rescind the adoption of this plan means we are saying this board knows what is best for the children, and we choose to disregard the will of the majority,” board chairwoman Jackie Carr said before the vote.

Speaking after the meeting, Carr said the revised approach is “a step back” from the earlier approach “but I am pleased with where we are today,” she said. “It’s a baby step in moving forward in restarting our schools.” Now, Carr said, the focus should be on making the first day of school smooth and successful.

Ahead of the meeting, parents and students were at the driveway of Westside Elementary with signs reading “Parent Choice” and “Give us the choice to go back to school.” Members of the group rallying outside later entered the cafeteria with some of their signs, which they held up during the meeting.

Thornton said the data is clear — the more people gather and the larger the group, the greater the risk. “What we don’t know yet is how the mitigations and physical distancing will work in a school setting,” he said.

“I think over time, we’ll be coming back in that blended model probably at all schools at some point,” Thornton said after the meeting. “I can’t imagine that we’ll just come back five days a week. So my staff is planning, for every level, to have a schedule for A/B and have a five day schedule, so it’s a lot of planning behind the scenes.”

“We have great teachers and a great community and I think the parents who want to send their kids to school are confident we’ll take care of their children the best we can,” Thornton continued. “And I think the parents who choose virtual, if that’s a good option for them, we totally support that.”

In a news release, the school division said parents must decide whether their child will follow the in-person track or 100% virtual option by 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 13. The decision can be made through an electronically provided form or in person at their child’s school.

Previously announced informational meetings to discuss the reopening plan are now rescheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at Georgie D. Tyler Middle School and at 6 p.m. Aug. 11 at Westside Elementary. The schedule change is due to the approach of Tropical Storm Isaias.