By Brandon Martin
As the number of coronavirus cases began to rise, both Henry County and Martinsville school systems have decided to begin the school year with virtual instruction only.
Because of that decision, some parents were left with concerns about adequate childcare during their workday and the quality of education with the online format.
Monica Hatchett, director of Communications and Organizational Learning for the county division, said that the schools are currently working with families to connect them with community resources to support their students during virtual learning.
“We are aware of several local community organizations who are collaborating to provide childcare support for working families,” Hatchett said. “Parents are encouraged to connect with local childcare centers and childcare providers so that they can connect families with facilities in their network.”
Community partners, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Blue Ridge, Henry-Martinsville Department of Social Services, Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., the Harvest Foundation, the United Way of Henry County and Martinsville, Smart Beginnings Martinsville Henry, and the YMCA are developing a plan to address concerns centered around caring for youth, both pre-K and grade school, according to United Way Executive Director Philip Wenkstern.
The group is also reaching out to the school systems to gather what information it can in order to better design the program to meet the needs of children and parents. The details are still being worked out, but the group hopes to be able to release specifics in the coming weeks, he said.
Smart Beginnings MHC has also been working to assess the needs for child care in the area, taking multiple factors into consideration, such as shifts in operations and costs due to COVID. Some parents no longer need childcare due to layoffs or switches to remote work. Other parents may find themselves in need of more childcare due to both school divisions beginning the school year virtually, according to Wenkstern.
Another concern among parents has been the quality of education from online classes instead of the traditional classroom format.
Hatchett said that teachers have been working to address some of these perceived shortfalls.
“While virtual learning is not ideal for everyone, our teachers have worked diligently this summer to plan and prepare for high quality virtual learning opportunities for our students,” she said. “Families will see excellent reinforcement of student learning through the lessons our teachers facilitate this fall.”
Looking more broadly, Hatchett said the biggest hurdle would be ensuring students can compete on a level playing field.
“The greatest concern we have as a school division is the equitable offering of Internet services in our area,” Hatchett said. “Because some students do not have Internet availability, some of our spring offerings were not the same for all students. School staff members have worked this summer to devise a variety of ways for students to download items to school-issued iPads this fall so that Internet access is not necessary for students to continue their learning.”
City schools have already seen some success with their online summer camp efforts.
More than 100 city students participated in the two camps. Instructors from Albert Harris Elementary School, Patrick Henry Elementary School, and Martinsville Middle School worked to bring the virtual experience to life.
“We are excited about the overwhelmingly positive response from our families and staff,” said Martinsville’s Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Angilee Downing. “This was an opportunity to pilot integrating hands-on and virtual learning, and it was a great success. We look forward to expanding the work done this summer into providing engaging, hands-on virtual experiences for our students in the fall.”
For parents still concerned about the potential downsides of online learning, Hatchett said that teachers have plans in place to ensure no student falls behind.
“As with the start of any school year, teachers will be working closely with each student to assess their learning needs when we return to classes on Aug. 10,” she said. “Each teacher will be using the academic progress logs kept by the student’s previous teacher to determine areas of growth and areas for focus during the first weeks of school and they will individualize instruction for each student based on the student’s academic needs.”