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Mecklenburg school reopening plan comes into focus / July 22, 2020
Mecklenburg County Public Schools has released its instructional plan for holding four days of in-person school starting Sept. 8, although Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols concedes that a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Virginia may scuttle the proposal.

The MCPS health plan, which the Virginia Department of Education requires of all divisions, is still being developed.

Nichols previewed the 20-page Fall 2020 School Reopening Instructional Plan with members of the school board in Boydton Monday night. Nichols told trustees the in-person school plan is contingent on Virginia remaining in Phase 3 of its phased reopening. “We are also looking at the numbers and we are concerned that the state may move back to Phase II,” Nichols told the board.

Under Phase II of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening plan, schools would remain shuttered and all learning would take place virtually. Nichols said he is tracking the numbers locally through the Virginia Department of Health as well as monitoring the ongoing risk level assessment for Mecklenburg County by the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Nichols said last week, Mecklenburg County was at the second lowest risk level, yellow, with an average of 3.7 daily cases per 100,000. Within seven days, that average jumped to 9 cases per 100,000 as Mecklenburg saw the number of confirmed cases climb from 262 on Monday, July 13 to 280 on Monday, July 20. On Tuesday, another positive test for the virus was added to Mecklenburg’s caseload, raising it to 281 persons.

Nine cases per 100,000 is the upper end of the yellow risk level. The next risk level is orange, which means there is accelerated spread. Stay-at-home orders and rigorous test and trace programs are advised for locations with a risk level of orange.

Even with the additional health and safety protocols that will be implemented inside school facilities, Nichols said division-wide, at least 31 percent of parents are asking for their child or children to remain at home. The number of remote learners for each school breaks down as follows:

Chase City Elementary School – 31 percent

Clarksville Elementary School – 33 percent

La Crosse Elementary School – 23 percent

South Hill Elementary School – 21 percent

Bluestone Middle School – 35 percent

Park View Middle School – 26 percent

Bluestone High School – 50 percent

Park View High School – 28 percent

The reopening plan that school trustees will be asked to approve at their August meeting iwill not allow visitors or guests into the school buildings during lunch or for classroom readings or events. Visitors who must be at school will be screened for COVID-19 before entering the buildings.

Social distancing of six feet or more will be mandated for all adults inside the schools and face coverings will be required when social distancing cannot be maintained. There will also be hand sanitizer stations placed in strategic locations throughout each building.

Students, teachers, and staff will be screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms, handwashing and hygiene protocols will be monitored and practiced and group gathering limitations will be enforced. There will be no assemblies, large staff meetings, or field trips and use of the cafeteria will be limited or eliminated. There will also be limits on the use of shared playground equipment.

Daily and weekly enhanced cleaning protocols will be implemented on the buses and inside each school building. To the extent it can be done safely, school windows and doors will be opened during the day to allow fresh air to circulate through the buildings. The sharing of supplies, utensils, devices, toys, books, and learning aids will be limited to lessen the potential spread of the virus.

Mecklenburg County’s plan allows siblings to sit together in one seat on buses, though the total number of riders on each bus may be limited to 22 under a rule handed down by Northam. When social distancing is not possible, bus riding students will be asked to wear their own facial coverings.

If anyone within the school is exposed to or is confirmed to have the virus, Nichols said there could be a short-term closure of that school facility in accordance with guidelines enforced by the Virginia Department of Health.

Elementary students will not change classes. Instead, the teachers will move to the room for special classes such as music and art. Keeping students in the same cohort is not feasible for secondary students. They will move from class to class while wearing face coverings and keeping to the sides of hallways.

At the start of each school day, students will move directly to their homeroom for breakfast and to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. The screening is a questionnaire developed in conjunction with the health department to assess exposure to the virus. All students must complete the questionnaire each day, and any student that cannot provide a negative answer to all questions will be immediately sent to a designated space, not the nurse’s office, for further screening.

The nurse’s offices will be kept available for students and staff in need of care for other maladies.

There will be multiple entry points for students to access each school building and staggered entry times to avoid congestion. Furniture in the classrooms will also be rearranged to meet safe distancing standards.

Students will need to provide their own cloth/fabric face coverings that extend over their nose and mouth and will be required to wear them while on the bus and during other portions of the school day, such as when changing classes. Students who refuse to wear face coverings will be required to forego in-person learning and take all classes virtually.

Academically, Mecklenburg County Public Schools’ educational model encourages students to develop what they call the 5C’s of learning, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and citizenship. As much as possible, the school division will continue to pursue that model during the pandemic regardless of whether students are taking classes virtually or in person.

All students in grades three-12 will be assigned a Chromebook to use for their lessons, regardless of whether they pursue 100 percent virtual learning or in-person schooling Monday-Thursday with virtual classes on Friday,

Virtual learning will take place on the Canvas platform using content from Virtual Virginia for many classes. For the most part, virtual learner students will be able to access their lessons at a time that works for them and their family. Occasionally virtual learners may be required to work together in synchronous learning. This may take place with video conferencing enabled through Google Classroom or Google Meet during a specific time. The time would be communicated well in advance to students.

A help line will be set up for parents and students to navigate these online instructional tools.

Teachers will maintain office hours dedicated to communication with parents and students learning virtually. Elementary staff will have office hours for 30 minutes two days a week, on Fridays and one other day, Monday through Thursday. Middle and high school staff will have office hours for 45 minutes two days each week Monday through Thursday and an additional hour on Fridays.

School counselors will also be available to online learners and their parents. Their office hours will be posted on their website and office door.

Recognizing the early end to the 2019-20 school year may have caused some students, particularly those in grades K-8, to miss out on skill development in literacy and math, these missed literacy and mathematical concepts will be embedded into curriculum for the 2020-21 school year.

Particular attention will be paid to students experiencing behaviors akin to depression, anxiety, or distress. A crisis intervention team has been established to support these students, regardless of how they are receiving their lessons — in person or virtually.

Students who express concerning language or behaviors while at school will be directed to a mental health professional qualified to administer an in-person suicide risk assessment and follow protocols established for in-person interactions. Students who express concerning language or behaviors while learning remotely will be able to access remote suicide risk assessment protocols. All staff will receive mandatory training in reporting and recognizing signs of depression, anxiety, or distress in students.

To address the unique needs of students with disabilities, those with 504 plans and gifted and talented students, educators will continue to work with families to collaboratively identify the most essential classes, programs and services for those student that can be provided both directly and indirectly in remote and in-person learning environments.

Service plans for special education students will be adjusted as needed for the circumstances of the learning environment. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and paraprofessionals have been tasked to redefine how learning happens. The Special Education Department will carry on with creating avenues for learning that will include professional learning sessions, online resources, working with current vendors for supplemental curriculum resources, and remote collaboration platforms.

Normal protocols will be followed for home based/home bound students.

Mecklenburg County Public Schools will continue to promote and support student participation in athletic and activity programs to the extent permitted. The Virginia High School League is expected to announce its plan for handling athletics on July 27. There are three potential scenarios for school sports for the coming year:

» Leave all sports in their current season but only allow students to compete in low-risk sports such as golf and cross-country.

» Switch the fall and spring sport seasons so that spring sports are played in the fall and fall sports in the spring.

» Establish a truncated sports season for all sports that begins December 14 with winter sports and ends June 26 with spring sports.

The third option appears to be the one most favored by school divisions throughout the state. Winter sports would run from Dec. 13-Feb. 20, fall sports from Feb. 15-May 1 and spring sports from April 12-June 26. Winter sports include basketball, gymnastics, indoor track, swimming and diving, and wrestling. Competitive cheer, cross country, field hockey, football, golf, and volleyball are included in fall sports, and baseball, softball, girls and boys lacrosse, soccer, tennis and track and field would take place during the spring sport season.

Mecklenburg County Public Schools will continue to provide meal service to students to the extent possible, given limitations on on-site and remote learning environments. Therefore, the meal service program may be a combination of in-school serving and a “grab & go” program.

The instructional plan does not address things like prom, homecoming or graduation ceremonies, but it is likely that these will be curtailed or eliminated depending on the virus risk level occurring at the time.

Nichols said school personnel know that these plans, as currently outlined, are subject to change as health conditions improve or deteriorate. Regardless of whether face-to-face or remote learning occurs, Nichols said the division will continue to collaborate with school teams, community resources, and families to empower students to reach their optimal learning potential even during the pandemic.

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