Some IW high schoolers return to classrooms

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Isle of Wight Public Schools marked a milestone Oct. 26 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time since March 13, all of the division’s nine schools had students in school buildings for face-to-face learning. About 1,200 high school students returned to classrooms with socially distanced setups on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27.

With the return of ninth through 12th graders, 3,092 students were doing in-person learning, while 2,321 students were following a virtual learning approach, division officials said last week. In-person students attend two days a week on an alternating schedule while following social distancing health protocols.

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Just over 400 students in grades four and five returned to classrooms on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13; about 500 middle school students returned on Oct. 19 and Oct. 20. Students participating in virtual learning will have the option to continue doing so at the end of the semester or return to what officials are calling the in-person continuum.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton said the main message he’s trying to impart to everyone is to remain vigilant and follow the rules. Otherwise, cases of the virus could surge, forcing schools to close and putting everyone out of the classroom.

“A lot of the students — high school especially — were talking about how it’s so good to be out and around people and see faces,” said Thornton, who was visiting Carrollton Elementary School on Oct. 29. “That’s been the theme from the high school kids.”

As each grade level returned to classrooms, Thornton said some people have been apprehensive. But most people feel a bit more relaxed once they see the measures that are in place for everyone’s protection. On the other hand, Thornton said, some teachers and staff can get a bit too relaxed. “They’re not as afraid to get close to each other or close to the kids and they want to get back to that normalcy and we have to say no,” Thornton said. “Keep your six feet and you have to keep your distance, and you have to do those things.”

If the health situation remains good or improves, it’s possible K-3 students might return to school five days a week before the end of 2020. But that would depend also on solving some logistical challenges, such as finding ways to accommodate more students on school campuses while maintaining social distancing health and safety protocols.

At Carrollton Elementary, Principal Bob Brennan took time to check in on classes soon after students had settled in for the morning. Along with many teachers and students, he was dressed up in a bright red outfit and blue hair as Thing One from the Dr. Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat,” in honor of book character day.

This year, the school had two back-to-back book character days in order to accommodate the alternating schedule. In past years, they’d have a parade and students would march around to show off their costumes while parents watched, but not this year. In some rooms, the door was closed but learning was still in progress as teachers conducted live video sessions with students who were doing virtual learning.

“We’re trying to do as many of the normal things kids are used to, just doing them in a slightly tweaked way,” said Brennan, who has worked in education since 1988. “The kids seem happy, the teachers, at this point I think realize this is not as hard as I thought it would be, at least the dealing with the kids aspect. It’s going well.”

Isle of Wight is not requiring masks in class if six feet of social distancing can be maintained. “But what we found at all levels and really at the high school this first week, I’d say the majority of the kids, two-thirds of the kids, are wearing masks in the classroom. So they’re choosing to do that even though they’re spaced six feet,” Thornton said.

Thornton also acknowledged that virtual learning is still presenting some challenges.

“When we told our families if you choose virtual, you need a commitment, especially at the elementary level, to be there with your child while they’re Zooming and making sure they’re doing their work.” But the reality is with parents working, schedules upended and internet issues, “we have lots of students who are not turning in work. And it’s not that they don’t want to turn in the work. It’s these outside factors that are contributing to why it’s not working well for a lot of kids,” he said.

On the other hand, Thornton said some families are reporting virtual learning is working well for them. But to unilaterally say that virtual learning is working for everyone is “not being transparent,” Thornton said.

Brennan said news that some parents who initially chose virtual learning are looking to return their students to classrooms for an in-person experience is a testimony that most people are adapting to the changes and confident that school leaders, fellow students and their families are working to keep schools open and safe.

“I think all the prep, and stress and prayers leading up to it — there’s a lot of concern about what it would look like,” Brennan said. “But once the kids showed up, it was just school like normal, except there was a lot more handwashing, mask wearing, all those mitigations.”

In a statement, school officials said they continue to work closely with the state’s Western Tidewater Health District on mitigation strategies and safety measures. Since Sept. 8, officials said, the division has not had cases of school-spread COVID-19, which indicates that the virus mitigation strategies are working.