First Day (copy)

Students board a Culpeper County school bus on Hendrick Street on the first day of the 2019-20 school year last August. Children riding buses could not be socially distanced from one another, making reopening schools this fall under CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic problematic.

Everyone wants to get students back in school this fall.

School administrators are preparing a plan using the governor’s guidelines as a baseline. These guidelines will be difficult to implement in any school system. We can be sure that the school experience will be different. We need to be flexible. The safety of our children, teachers, and staff must be the first priority.

Having all students return to the school building in the fall seems unlikely. The requirements of social distancing and disinfecting are more than school personnel can manage with a full house. It’s impossible to transport all the students on the buses while having them socially distanced. If buses do multiple runs, they’d need to be sanitized between them.

It seems likely that some students will come to the building and some will continue with distance learning. Those students who need to be in the building, particularly those who need special instruction, may be the first to be brought back. Many of these students haven’t been able to receive the instruction they needed during the lockdown. They need to be back in person with teachers.

Before entering the building, temperatures must be taken. Each school has one nurse. Other staff members will be enlisted to accomplish this in a timely manner. Classrooms will need to be sanitized between classes. Teachers will be expected to enforce the wearing of masks. These tasks will be added to the long list of current duties.

Certain classes such as band, music, choir, art, and physical education present entirely different challenges. Students can be socially distanced in these classes if class size is reduced. If classes are smaller, more class periods or more teachers will be required. These classes are critical for a balanced curriculum and will be even more important to students now who have been dealing with the stress of unsafe home environments and the isolation of the quarantine.

Online learning works for some, but not all. Many residents in our county can’t get reliable, high-speed internet. The school system made laptops available to students and set up hot spots. Not every student was able to reach those hot spots to participate in Google Classroom.

The question of how to grade work done at home will need to be addressed. Some students who knew work was not being graded this spring, simply chose not to engage. This will be one of the greatest challenges for teachers.

Teachers are to be commended for their herculean effort transitioning to online instruction this spring. Many of them didn’t have internet access at home or had to compete with family for it. Many classes aren’t suited to online instruction. If a hybrid method is chosen, teachers must provide in-person instruction AND online instruction.

Will classes be live-streamed for those who aren’t in the building? Teachers will, once again, be asked to do more with no additional compensation and there’s no additional funding for new personnel. These challenges are causing more teachers to leave the profession or retire.

The state has said that SOL-testing will resume in the spring. Let’s hope they reconsider that as time goes on. Teachers need more time to help students catch up. There should be a moratorium on standardized tests until schools can adjust.

There are many other issues that need to be considered while developing a plan. No matter what plan is chosen, there will be people who are unhappy. It won’t be perfect for everyone.

School leaders are doing their best with the information and guidance they’ve been given. Patience and understanding will be needed on everyone’s part.

Elizabeth Hutchins is a former Culpeper County School Board member and educator

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