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Virginia Dept. of Education issues 126-page guide to help school divisions plan for reopening

(WLUC)
Published: Jun. 10, 2020 at 11:53 AM EDT
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Following Governor Ralph Northam's

, with restrictions in place, the Virginia Department of Education has issued comprehensive guidance to all 132 of the commonwealth's school divisions.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane officially released "

," Virginia's 126-page guide to help each school division plan how they can follow the state's recommendations for student and staff safety.

The recommendations in the guide span the three phases of Gov. Northam's current reopening plan .

“The commonwealth’s public schools face the unprecedented challenge of restarting operations and formal instruction after a mid-year shutdown and responding to the toll the necessary closure has taken on learning and on the social and emotional health of students and staff,” Lane said. “The governor — in consultation with public health authorities — has outlined a plan for reopening schools. ‘Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020’ provides detailed guidance and considerations for school divisions as they implement the governor’s plan and address inequities in our schools that have been either caused, exacerbated or revealed by the closure.”

Recommendations provided in the guide address a lot of the challenges school divisions will face while making their own plans to resume formal instruction and reopen schools, which have been closed to students and teachers since March 16.

Each school division will have to come up with their own plan and submit to the Department of Education for approval before the start of the school year.

The “Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020” guide includes best practices and strategies in these areas:

  • School operations, including COVID-19 mitigation strategies; health screenings for students and staff; and social distancing policies;
  • Supports for students and staff, including assessing and addressing the social, emotional and mental health needs of all learners;
  • Instruction, including equitable supports for all students; digital learning; and assessing and meeting the instructional needs of all students, including students with disabilities and English learners; and
  • Communication with parents and families, including resources accessible to all families on health, instruction, social distancing and local reopening plans.

The new guidance document also has sample alternative schedules that schools could use for the gradual return to in-person classes as each school moves through the three-phase reopening plan.

Under the sample scenarios, groups of students attend classes in their school buildings on alternating days or weeks, allowing schools to adhere to social distancing requirements and capacity limits — for both buildings and school buses — during each phase.

During the days or weeks that students aren't attending class in the school buildings, they're distance learning or learning in another alternative way.

“Our goal was to provide recommendations and reopening scenarios that reflect the diverse needs and circumstances of our rural, suburban and urban school divisions,” Lane said. “The guidance in ‘Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020’ is also flexible because we can’t predict with absolute certainty how the threat of the coronavirus will evolve over the summer and early fall.”

The guidance combines the recommendations of four advisory committees put together by the Virginia Department of Education, which included hundreds of classroom teachers, instructional specialists, parents, school counselors, special educators, division superintendents, and school division operations and facilities managers from across the commonwealth. The committees met virtually in April and May.

The focus and leadership of the advisory committees are as follows:

VDOE Continuity for Learning Task Force

• Donna Dalton, retired, Chesterfield County Public Schools (co-chairwoman)

• Tina Manglicmot, director, Office of STEM and Innovation, VDOE (co-chairwoman)

• Beth Teigen, chief of staff, Henrico County Public Schools (co-chairwoman)

VDOE Recovery Task Force

• Scott Kizner, superintendent, Stafford County Public Schools (co-chairman)

• Rodney Robinson, Richmond Public Schools, 2019 National Teacher of the Year (co-chairman)

• Jeffery Smith, superintendent, Hampton Public Schools (co-chairman)

VDOE Return to School Advisory Panel

• Aaron Spence, superintendent, Virginia Beach Public Schools (chairman)

• Eric Williams, superintendent, Loudoun County Public Schools (vice chairman)

VDOE Accreditation Task Force

• Rosa Atkins, superintendent, Charlottesville Public Schools (co-chairwoman)

• Scott Brabrand, superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools (co-chairman)

• Alan Seibert, superintendent, Salem Public Schools (co-chairman)

“The leaders and members of these task forces and advisory panels recognized that even in the midst of the immediate challenges posed by the shutdown — such as keeping children connected with learning and school-based meals — it was essential to look over the horizon and begin planning for the eventual reopening of schools,” Lane said. “I extend my deepest gratitude to all of these dedicated educators — and all of those who contributed — for their vision and commitment to the well-being of Virginia students.”

An overview of the plan for classes to restart

According to Governor Northam and Virginia Department of Education Superintendent James Lane, their new phased plan for reopening Virginia's schools will follow the same phases as the rest of the

for reopening businesses around the state.

Northam said the process will start with small groups in schools, and their plan will offer flexibility to every school district and individual school by providing options for their guidelines that can be adjusted on a school-by-school basis.

All PreK-12 schools in Virginia will be required to deliver new instruction to students for the 2020-2021 academic year, regardless of the operational status of school buildings, but will have discretion over how they do it.

The phased approach already offers some instructional opportunities during the summer as Phase 1 continues for a few more days in Richmond and Northern Virginia and as Phase 2 continues statewide.

Here are the basics of the plan announced on Tuesday:

  • Phase 1: Allows for in-person education to be provided for special education programs and allows for in-person childcare for children of working families
  • Phase 2: Allows for in-person instruction for pre-K through 3rd grade students, ESL programs and students with disabilities; also allows summer camps in school settings to operate in-person
  • Phase 3: Allows for in-person instruction for all students, but with strict social distancing measures in place
  • Beyond Phase 3: Allows for "new normal" operations under future guidance

Detailed information each phase can be found

.

Once all students are able to return to school in Phase 3, every school – public and private – will have to meet Virginia Department of Education guidelines for physical distancing.

Each school will need to submit a plan outlining their guidelines to the Virginia Department of Education for approval. Private schools will submit their plans to the VCPE, who will then work with the VDOE on approval.

The basics of what will be required are physical distancing of six feet between students and other students, as well as staff; face coverings required for staff where distancing can't be maintained; daily health screenings for staff; face coverings strongly encouraged, but not required for students (especially encouraged for older students)

Individual schools and school districts can put in place more stringent limits than the state guidelines if they determine it's needed.

Dr. Lane said one major focus of their plan was to provide immediate priority to the most vulnerable learners in the education system for whom remote learning is often the most difficult.

He also said they expect that the ways many schools will comply with distancing guidelines include staggered schedules and limits in individual classrooms and building spaces.

More detail on the plan

“School will be open for all students next year, but instruction will look different,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane. “The phased, hybrid approach allows PreK-12 students to have valuable class time and face-to-face interaction with their peers, while prioritizing health and safety by ensuring physical distancing measures are maintained. This plan keeps equity at the forefront by giving divisions the opportunity to deliver in-person instruction to those who need it the most.”

While Phases 1 and 2 require remote learning for most students, Dr. Lane and Gov. Northam said Phase 3 will need to incorporate remote learning as well.

They expect that many schools will offer "blended learning" with in-person classes and remote classes depending on the day to comply with distancing requirements in schools that, in many places, have been facing over-crowding for years.

In Phase 1, which could come back in the worst-case scenario of a new spike in COVID-19 cases in Virginia, remote instruction has to be approved by an education team and have a parent's consent.

Every phase requires mitigation and health strategies to be put into place by schools, including plans for remote options for students who are safer at home, including students at higher risk of severe illness, as well as telework options for faculty and staff in similar situations.

Schools will have to plan to provide six feet of distancing between desks, work stations, students and teachers, students and students, and even on school buses, Dr. Lane said.

With those requirements, staggered schedules will likely be necessary in many places.

Cafeterias will also need to be modified, and Dr. Lane said he expects some schools will have students eating in classrooms to adapt to the space requirements.

Face coverings will be encouraged but not required for students, though strongly encouraged for older students, and they will be required for faculty and staff who cannot distance.

To put it into handy list form, the new required precautions are

  • Daily health screenings of students and staff
  • Providing remote learning exceptions and teleworking for students and staff who are at a higher risk of severe illness
  • The use of cloth face coverings by staff when at least six feet physical distancing cannot be maintained
  • Encouraging the use of face coverings in students, as developmentally appropriate, in settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained

The education department is sending out a 126-page guide titled "Recover, Redesign, and Restart" to all school districts immediately to assist in planning.

Dr. Lane said it's a comprehensive document created with the help of students, parents, teachers, superintendents, principals, and more to answer most questions.

The phased guidance should also be released in writing later on Tuesday.

Gov. Northam said his main message is that students will be back in school this fall.

What about buses?

According to Dr. Lane, Virginia Department of Health guidance will require six feet of physical distancing on buses, as well as in classrooms. He said that's because research has supported physical distancing as the best way to reduce transmission of COVID-19, but did not address the practical reality of how that will affect bus routes and an ongoing shortage of school bus drivers that's been an issue for years.

Guidelines for youth sports

Gov. Northam invited Clark Mercer, his chief of staff who has young children playing sports, to the podium to outline the commonwealth's guidelines on youth sports.

Mercer thanked people across Virginia for calling with their sports guideline recommendations and outlined overarching guidelines for youth sports in Virginia.

He said the main takeaway is to use a common sense approach to avoid intentional contact and to avoid shared equipment.

The common sense comes in telling the difference between incidental/accidental contact and intentional/sustained contact.

He used a few examples, like saying that going to a karate class would be within the guidelines, but sparring with someone in the class would be against them.

Playing baseball on its own would be within the guidelines, but sharing bats and helmets would be not.

For high school football, he said the future when games start up in the fall is unclear, but for summer practices now, most drills are fine, and, for instance, quarterbacks passing to wide receives wearing gloves is fine.

For soccer, he recommended coaches structure practices without intentional contact and find ways to avoid throw-ins to limit shared contact with the ball.

As far as capacity guidelines:

• Indoor capacity: Indoor fields and facilities are limited to 30% capacity, with the limit set for each individual space

• Outdoor capacity: Outdoor fields and complexes are allowed 50% capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer.

That 50-person limit does not apply to youth sports to make sure all parents/guardians can be there, but distancing of fans is still required: 10 feet, like the standard for gyms and fitness centers.

What's the timeline for coming phases?

With the reopening plan for schools following the statewide reopening plan, Gov. Northam said his team will continue reviewing the latest data every day to decide on when to move into Phase 3, but that Phase 2 will last a minimum of two weeks.

He said an announcement will be made as soon as they can review the data to accurately make a decision for Phase 3.

What about funding for schools to implement the new plan?

Gov. Northam said the state is looking at how to use some of the money received through the CARES Act to get some of it to school districts in need of assistance for reopening plans.

According to Dr. Lane, of the $238 million that went to Virginia through the CARES Act, 90% went to localities with Title 1 dictating how those funds are distributed, and 10% was set aside for state actitivites.

How can working parents deal with staggered schedules?

Dr. Lane said school divisions will work to find unique ways to use their space and partnerships with nonprofits, child care groups, the YMCA, and similar organizations to give working families options for childcare while some students may have to stay home some days, depending on how schedules adapt to the new system.

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