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Prince Edward to return students to class by Feb. 8

Despite large numbers of COVID-19 cases out of the locality and an apparent majority of parents and staff wishing to remain fully virtual, the Prince Edward County School Board voted Wednesday, Jan. 13, to implement Option 9 of hybrid learning, a phase-in return to schools that will put all opt-in students back in classrooms by Feb. 8.

The decision comes just as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam urges schools to work toward bringing children back to in-person instruction.

After months of fully virtual instruction, the board voted back in November to ease students back into school, allowing kids in the fifth grade and below to attend school in-person twice a week. But as winter break approached, a prediction of an influx of COVID-19 cases over the holidays led school officials to hold off bringing kids back on the first day of the second semester of the school year, Tuesday, Jan. 5.

On Wednesday evening, school board members listened to a report from Prince Edward County Public School (PECPS) Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson who explained the county currently had 18 active pediatric cases of the virus.

In her presentation to the board, Johnson presented the findings of a survey distributed to parents, guardians and staff in January which asked an array of questions regarding a return to hybrid learning.

When asked if they plan to send their child/children back to school when the option becomes available, 41% of parents/guardians answered no. Of those surveyed, 40% answered yes and 4% of parents said they’d send at least one child back with 15% undecided.

When asked which learning plan they supported the most, 42% of parents/guardians said they supported remote-only instruction, while 17% supported in-person only school. Of those who answered, 22% supported an “option per child” learning plan, and 19% of survey participants supported a hybrid model.

Comparatively, 47% of staff surveyed said they supported remote-only instruction, while 9% supported in-person only learning. Of staff members surveyed, 31% liked the option per child approach and 13% supported a hybrid model.

Less than half, or 49% of the staff out of 176 responded, said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available to them. Of those 176 who responed, 19% said no, and 32% said they preferred not to answer.

Johnson said although representatives of the health department had not given recommendations surrounding a possible return to in-person instruction, she herself favored the Option 9 hybrid learning model which would see students fifth grade and below return to school Jan. 19 followed by new grade levels each week until Feb. 9, at which point all grades would be participating in hybrid learning.

Many school board members echoed Johnson’s preferences, citing concerns that students were falling too far behind, causing a drop in grades and self-confidence.

In local school districts that have participated in hybrid learning formats, area case spikes and COVID-exposed students and staff have led schools to temporarily have to return to virtual learning models.

Cumberland County Public Schools was forced just this week to temporarily move to virtual-only school after a nutrition employee was diagnosed with COVID-19.

When asked by board members what the school would have to do if returning to classrooms caused another coronavirus spike, Johnson said the school system would have to do the same.

“Then we will have to pivot and shut down,” she said. “And it will frustrate parents, but then we will have to shut down.”

School board members ultimately voted to approve the Option 9 hybrid learning model. Under the model, the division will begin the week of Jan. 18 to bring students in grades Pre-K through fifth back for one day of re-orientation. The following week grades Pre-K through sixth will begin coming to school for hybrid learning two days a week on an A or B schedule. One or two grades will be added in each week until all students have returned to school by Feb. 9.

Families will still have the option to opt-in for remote-only instruction.

The commonwealth began putting more pressure on public schools this week to get students back at their desks despite week after week of record COVID-19 cases in Virginia.

Thursday, Jan. 14, Gov. Northam held a COVID-19 briefing where he acknowledged students, parents and school administration were understandably worried about the effects of remote learning on Virginia children and the time in the classroom so many students have lost.

“We need to look at adjusting our school calendar and the probability of schools operating year-round to make up for some of this time, but in the short-term all of our school divisions need to be looking at how to reopen schools.”

Northam said the Department of Education would be issuing new guidance to local schools this week.

“The emphasis will change. Instead of ‘schools should be closed,’ we’re going to approach it from the starting point of ‘schools need to be open, and here are the ways to do that safely.’”