Schools lay groundwork to reopen

Henry County and Martinsville school divisions are laying the groundwork to reopen for the 2020-21 school year.

Monica Hatchett, director of Communications & Organizational Learning for Henry County Public Schools, said a “Return to School” team is working on a plan to account for a variety of possibilities. The team will use the parameters set by Gov. Ralph Northam, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We will be surveying families regarding their preferences and using that information to direct our planning so that we are supporting students and families in the best way possible during our return to school,” Hatchett said. “We are in the process this week of preparing our health plan for the summer to submit to VDOE, and we will also be finalizing our academic plan for the coming year so that our (Board of Supervisors) can approve the plan at their June 23 meeting.”

Hatchett said that after the plan is submitted to VDOE, families would also be notified through multiple platforms. Some examples of these are weekly emails and posts to the school’s website, she added.

“Ultimately, we are excited at the prospect of students returning to the classroom, and are doing everything we can to make sure that that return is a positive and healthy experience for the entire school community,” Hatchett said.

Currently, the plan is for the county schools to reopen Aug. 10.

Martinsville Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley, Jr., sent a letter to parents, students and staff addressing how the city schools will operate while adhering to public health guidelines surrounding the coronavirus.

He said he expects the school year to begin on the original Aug. 6 start date, with new learning and grading assignments. Operations will be a “hybrid schedule of in-person and remote learning.” This will limit the number of students that can be seen in a day, so Talley said that the school will assess student needs to determine who needs additional support.

Laptops will continue to be provided to every student on a 1:1 ratio for grades k-12. Plans are also being made to assist students who do not have access to the internet at home.

Talley said that transportation “will be the most significant challenge,” and noted that the city may need to reevaluate bus routes. This may impact the scheduling of students.

Parker Gunn, coordinator for Communications and Community Outreach in the Martinsville division, said “we will continue to work with the Department of Education and the Governor’s office for guidance on the safest way to reopen, as safety is our top priority.”

Carlisle School is currently enrolling new families in Pre-K3 through 12th grades for the 2020-2021 school year which is slated to begin August 24.

In-person and virtual tours are both offered and proper sanitation and social distancing will be practiced during the in-person tours, according to the private school’s website.

When classes begin on Aug. 24, daily temperature checks will be administered to students, staff, visitors both at the school and on the bus.

Classes will be changed for more “flexible” schedules, and dining areas will maintain health and safety standards, according to the website.

Hand washing upon entry and throughout the day and social distancing guidelines will also be practiced.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidelines for schools reopening are broken down into four phases. Phase One will allow for in-person instruction in special education programs and allow for child care for working families. Phase Two will add preschool through third grade students, English learners, and summer camps in school buildings. Phase Three will allow for all students to receive in-person instruction with strict social distancing protocols.

This may require alternative schedules that blend in-person and remote learning for students, like Martinsville’s plan.

Beyond Phase Three will have divisions resume operations under further guidance.

In every phase, PreK-12 schools must follow CDC Guidance for Schools, including social and physical distancing, enhanced health and hygiene procedures, cleaning and disinfecting measures, and other mitigation strategies. These precautions include, but are not limited to:

*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.

Virginia schools will receive $66.8 million through the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund to expand distance learning opportunities, fund services for students disproportionately impacted by loss of class time, and provide financial assistance to higher education students and institutions impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This funding will help Virginia provide high-quality instruction and continue the delivery of services for K-12 and higher education students during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Northam said. “We are prioritizing this federal assistance to help address learning gaps caused by school closures, expand and improve internet connectivity, increase access to robust distance learning programs, and help students in need of additional financial assistance complete their postsecondary education and training.”

Northam is distributing $43.4 in GEER funding for the following PreK-12 priorities:

*$26.9 million to support short-term and long-term initiatives expanding high-speed internet access to all communities in the Commonwealth, including providing laptop computers and Mi-Fi devices for students without home internet access;

*$10 million to expand early childhood education and child care programs in the Commonwealth, especially for children with academic and social-emotional needs;

* $3.5 million to support the expansion of the Virtual Virginia online learning program to provide content for elementary and middle school students; allow teachers in all school divisions to use the platform to create, edit, and share content as well as provide personalized virtual instruction for all students; and expand the Virtual Virginia Professional Learning Network, in partnership with the Virginia Society for Technology, to ensure that educators and technology-support personnel have the capacity and skills to meet the demand for quality online learning; and

*$3 million to cover unfunded costs for the continuation of school-based meals programs while schools remain closed, including hazard pay for school nutrition staff.

Approximately $23.4 million of the funds will be distributed throughout Virginia’s higher education system, with $18.3 million allocated to public and private four-year institutions and Richard Bland College. Of this funding, $14.5 million will be allocated to four-year public institutions and Richard Bland College, and $3.8 million will be allocated to private, four-year Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) eligible institutions. All of these institutions will use the one-time funding to address immediate student financial needs, cover health and safety costs associated with COVID-19, and support activities that make online learning more accessible and equitable.

GEER funds totaling $4.9 million will be distributed to the Virginia Community College System as well.

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