By Callie Hietala
Backpacks, pencils, notebooks, and masks are on the basic school supply list for students returning to Martinsville and Henry County schools.
Martinsville students returned on August 8. Henry County students begin classes on August 16.
In February, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1303 which required all Virginia school systems to offer five days of in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year.
In Henry County, middle and high school students had the option to choose between in-person learning and an online virtual academy. Nearly 100 eligible students chose the virtual option.
“We’d been planning to offer a virtual academy,” said Monica Hatchett, director of communications for the county division. “The pandemic taught us that we could very easily do that.”
Students in good academic standing could apply for consideration for the virtual option. Following that, the student and parents met with school officials to make sure everyone involved was well-prepared for what virtual learning would be like.
“Most of the classes offered are in conjunction with Virtual Virginia, and some are taught by our own teachers,” Hatchett said.
Virtual Virginia (VVA) is a program of the Virginia Department of Education whose mission is to provide “flexible options for the diverse educational needs of students and their families,” according to the VVA website. Courses are taught by full-time and adjunct instructors who are fully licensed in Virginia.
Martinsville City Schools also offered a virtual option for students, but only 8 students opted in that program.
The looming challenge facing both divisions is helping students catch up from a year virtual and hybrid learning.
“Yes, we have concerns. However, we aren’t going to be able to assess those fully until we get (the students) in the classroom and teachers can work with them. Reading is our greatest concern,” Hatchett said. “It’s not something they want to do a lot on their own.”
She said teachers will assess which students have accelerated, maintained, or fallen behind during the past academic year.
Remediation options are in place for students who need extra support during the school day. There also are after-school programs in place to help students catch up.
Parker Gunn, communications and community outreach coordinator for Martinsville City Schools said, “While we know there has been some learning loss, we are looking to accelerate our instruction so we can ensure our students are ready for the next grade level and beyond.”
In late July, the Virginia Departments of Health and Education released updated guidance for PreK-12 schools for the 2021-22 school year which reinforced the importance of in-person learning and gave guidelines for keeping students and staff safe as classes resume.
“Due to the dedication, expertise, and close partnership with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education, the Commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size fits all approach,” Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources, wrote in a release.
The guidance recommends that elementary schools implement required masking for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, and that middle and high schools should, at a minimum, require students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks while indoors. A federal order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires masks to be worn on public transportation, including school buses.
Both local school divisions are requiring all individuals to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
Hatchett said that many county school staff have been fully vaccinated, as have about 20 percent of eligible students.
She added that the school division is continuing with pandemic practices put in place last year. For instance, schools will continue to make wipes and hand sanitizer available, conduct deep cleaning on a regular basis, and encourage social distancing. Guidance from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) suggests that distancing of at least 3 feet is recommended, “but schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.”
Additionally, Hatchett said, schools will maintain quarantine rooms for anyone exhibiting symptoms to wait in until a parent or guardian can pick them up.
Gunn said city staff has “worked diligently to create a plan to ensure staff and students are safe and following recommendations from the CDC and VDH. We have worked to set up our buildings to follow social distancing guidelines, while still providing quality instruction, and using other layers of protection like Plexiglas partitions and mandating masks be worn for all staff and students. We have distributed laptops to incorporate technology into our learning.”
Hatchett is optimistic that schools are prepared for the year ahead.
“We believe that our schools are some of the safest places to be in our community,” she said.
“We are thrilled to have our students back in our buildings,” Gunn said.