Students could return to school either virtually or two days a week under a proposal presented Monday evening to the Newport News School Board.

The board will decide Aug. 4.

They are not considering bringing students back full-time.

“We were well aware that we would not be able to accommodate 100% of our students reporting to our school buildings every day and continue to meet the safety guidelines necessary to keep staff and students,” Superintendent George Parker said.

Parker presented three options to the school board in the virtual meeting in a presentation that was still being tinkered with until shortly before the meeting started. The district is launching a student, family and staff survey Tuesday to collect more feedback.

The first is an all-virtual start for the first nine weeks of the semester, through Nov. 2. Families of special education students and those learning English might choose to participate in small groups, but there wouldn’t be classes.

The second is in-person classes only for the most high-need students: special education, students learning English and children in early childhood programs.

The third is a blended model for all grades – some students would attend school on Monday and Tuesday and the rest on Thursday and Friday.

In any option, families will be allowed to choose a virtual option. Parker said that families would have to complete a checklist to show that they’re able to help with virtual learning.

“We’re in the middle of this conversation,” said board Chairman Douglas Brown.

Many of the state’s most urban districts in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area are considering an all-virtual start to the school year. Norfolk School Board members said last week that they were leaning towards all-virtual as well.

The decision comes as the number of COVID-19 cases have risen in Virginia, particularly in Hampton Roads.

On Sunday, the Virginia Department of Health reported 122 new cases in the city, the largest daily increase yet. The number of new cases has been on a generally upward trend for several weeks, and as of Monday morning the total tally stood at 1,206. Fourteen people have died.

“We’re going to continue to monitor the local COVID community spread to make sure that, hopefully, we will see a positive trend in the upcoming weeks,” Parker said.

In the virtual plan, students would get 2 to 3.5 hours of instruction like video conferences on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The rest of the student’s days would be for other work.

In all of the options, Wednesday is reserved for cleaning, teacher professional development, meetings and small group instruction for students who need it. According to Joanne Jones, executive director of curriculum and development, students would still be expected to do independent activities.

Attendance will be taken. If a student isn’t logging in, they will be counted as absent. Regular grading will return. The district is also switching to a new online learning platform.

A survey that the district conducted in late June and early July that got over 13,000 responses found that about 36% of parents preferred an all-virtual option. About 26% of both staff and students did as well.

The district plans to provide Chromebooks to every student in kindergarten through 12th grade this school year. However, the demand for laptops from districts across the country means that they may not have one for every elementary student until December.

Director of technology Chris Jenkins said that there would be some available for elementary students who don’t have a computer at the start of fall. They are also giving WiFi hotspots to students who don’t have internet access at home.

Most board members said that, if public health conditions allow it, face-to-face instruction should be a priority, but that the district needs to be flexible.

“I think as much as we can plan for children being in school, and that’s great and that’s what we want to strive for, we could be looking at this a month or two down the road with many numbers at home quarantining or numbers changing,” said board member Rebecca Aman.

The earlier survey showed strong support among respondents for a hybrid model. About 61% of students, 56% of parents and 62% of staff selected that as their preferred option. Still, about 47% of parents said they were somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable sending their child to school.

The blended model administrators presented Monday breaks students into two groups learning in different parts of the week. Wednesdays and Saturdays would be reserved for deep cleaning and sanitizing in addition to daily cleanings. Students would follow the virtual guidelines on days they aren’t in person.

Parents would be expected to take their child’s temperature and check for COVID-19 symptoms every morning.

If a student develops symptoms at school, they’ll be sent to an “isolation room” separate from the school nurse’s office until a parent can pick them up. Parker said that schools would likely continue to notify families and staff when a case is confirmed, as happened in spring when a person affiliated with Woodside High School tested positive.

On the bus, students and drivers will be required to wear masks. Over 40% of families said they want their student to ride the bus.

State guidelines recommend students and staff wear masks if they’re within six feet of each other, and keeping six feet of distance between students would limit buses to 13-14 students. Mary Lou Roaseau, assistant superintendent of business and support services, said that wearing masks means they can fit 20-30 students on a bus at a time.

Lockers and water fountains won’t be used. In classrooms, desks would be positioned six feet apart, so masks wouldn’t be required in the classroom.

Arranging the desks like that reduces class sizes, even after furniture is removed. Only 12 students would fit in a typical elementary classroom and 16 in a typical secondary classroom.

Students would eat breakfast and lunch in classrooms. On Wednesdays, families participating virtually can pick up five days worth of breakfast snacks and lunches.

The district is working with Newport News Parks and Recreation to come up with childcare options at school, either before and after school or all-day on days when students don’t have class. About 40% of parents who answered the survey said that child care may or would be a problem if students didn’t go back full-time.

Some board members expressed hesitancy about the risks involved in the blended option. Parker said there’s also several working groups continuing to figure out a long list of questions.

“We will continue to look at our operational capacity in terms of how we would serve students in either a hybrid or virtual environment and continue to work on the dilemmas that we’ve started to receive,” Parker said.

John Eley, who represents the south district, was hospitalized with pneumonia and COVID-19 recently. He was sworn in for his second term in June from the hospital and says that he has lingering nerve damage to his knee.

Before he was hospitalized, he had only shown mild symptoms, just a fever and chills.

“It’s so dear to me; I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through” Eley said.

Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, [email protected]


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