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Virus gets in way of Mecklenburg classroom return plan


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Parents push back on school reopening plan / June 24, 2020

Parents have numerous questions about Mecklenburg County Public Schools’ plan to return to classes on Aug. 10 — and they’re pressing central office for answers.

In response, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols will host a Zoom group session tonight as administrators work to allay the concerns of parents, students and families about the resumption of fall classes.

Many parents who have shared their thoughts on social media acknowledge that the logistics of reopening schools are overwhelming and agree that the school division is doing the best it can under the circumstances. They question, however, the wisdom of reopening on schedule in early August, given the enormous changes planned for the school week.

Some parents also wonder why the school division is not fighting back against state guidelines that they believe have been crafted with urban counties and wealthier communities in mind. They fear the school division is forcing them to choose between jobs and their child’s education.

Some parents are calling for the school division to ignore the guidelines and focus instead on the educational needs of students in Mecklenburg County, which they say is best served by returning to the in-person classroom full-time.

The reaction comes after the school board discussed plans last week to have students attend school on alternating weeks and rely heavily on online virtual learning, in an effort to reduce the population inside school buildings at any one time and, hence, lower the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

Virginia’s “Recover, Redesign and Restart 2020” plan issued by Education Secretary Atif Qarni and Superintendent of Public Education James Lane calls for schools to:

» Provide remote learning for students and teleworking for staff who are at a higher risk for severe illness;

» Limit in person instruction to comply with social distancing requirements;

» Eliminate large gatherings such as assemblies, graduations, and meetings;

» Limit the number of students on each bus to one per seat every other seat, with some exceptions;

» Maintain six feet of separation at all times between students, whether seated at their desk or otherwise, and between students and teachers; and

» Prohibit or limit athletics, extra-curricular activities, and field trips.

Mecklenburg plans to offer parents two educational options — total virtual learning, or a hybrid plan that alternates between in-person learning and virtual learning, with students at school only four days every other week. Fridays would be reserved for teacher workdays and planning.

A number of parents say they want their students in school full-time, but in contained classrooms where teachers rotate between rooms.

Parents point to language in Qarni and Lane’s restart plan that suggests the school division have latitude when it comes to reopening, suggesting that not all limitations have to be followed.

They cite two key sentences: “While the phased reopening sets guardrails for all, divisions will have discretion and some flexibility as they implement these policies and procedures in each of their school buildings.” Also: “While the broad parameters of each phase [of the reopening plan] are defined by the state, a great deal of local autonomy exists and school divisions have the flexibility to respond to this guidance within the capacity and resources of the division.”

Nichols says he understands and appreciates parents’ frustration, but adds that ignoring the guidelines is not an option. “I am aware that many don’t agree with the Governor’s use of power to close schools or limit how we are re-opening schools, business, tourism, etc. In fact, the Constitution of Virginia states that K-12 education is a local responsibility, not a state responsibility, but most of the funding that pays for our school bills comes from state government. We cannot function without it, so we are forced to abide by those regulations.

“I’m told that the Department of Education has the power to shut down school divisions that don’t comply,” he said.

Parents also expressed disappointment at being left out of the decision-making process for reopening the schools, particularly now that they are being asked to take on a major role when it comes to educating their children.

They point to school divisions in Bedford and Amherst counties that created a task force of parents, teachers, and administrators to help develop the plan for reopening their local schools.

School Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt said he’s receiving five or more messages a day from parents. “They want answers.”

Last week, two parents of school-aged children, Zeb Elliott and Derek Hazelwood, created a Facebook page for others to share their concerns and comments. The group has grown to 1,100 members and continues to expand. On Thursday, the group hosted a virtual town hall meeting for the airing of questions, concerns, and suggestions.

Elliott and Hazelwood, who met with Nichols on Thursday, promised to share their conversation with the superintendent and to open a dialogue between school officials and parents.

At the meeting with Nichols, Hazelwood said they quickly learned two topics are not up for debate — the start of school and the ability to have all students return to the classroom full-time. Nichols was emphatic that classes would begin on Aug. 10 and that having all students back in school at one time was not workable. He was willing to provide answers, to the extent available, to other questions and suggested he, Elliott and Hazelwood host a virtual meeting on Wednesday, June 24 at 7 p.m. to provide those answers.

Parents can find the link to the meeting on the Facebook page or the Concerned Parents/Guardians of Students of Mecklenburg Va Public Schools Facebook page.

Hazelwood said topics he hopes will be addressed during the virtual meeting include:

» Why the school division developed and is seeking parental input through its “Back to School Planning Survey.”

» Why there were only two options offered to students for learning in the survey, a virtual learning program or a hybrid program, half virtual learning/half in-person classes.

» Why the school division is not willing or able to delay the start of the upcoming school year.

» Why the division is not offering students the opportunity to return to the classroom fulltime with restrictions.

» Plans the division has for transporting students now that ridership on the buses is limited.

» The school division’s response plan should there be a COVID-19 outbreak in one or more school buildings.

» Plans for educating special needs students, and which students fall within that category.

» How teachers monitor student attendance and performance and are able to work with students using the virtual learning platform.

» Steps being taken to address the internet access problem many students face.

Nichols conceded the two questions he is asked repeatedly have no easy answers: “What do I do with my child or children on those days they are not in school and I have to be at work? Will the school help with daycare?”

“We will give parents as much choice as possible, but there are many unfortunate limitations that we cannot control. We don’t have space or funding to provide day-care for them. If we had space, we would bring the students to school,” Nichols said.

Moving forward, he promises to have an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page available for parents on the school’s website. He offered these words to parents seeking answers and worrying about how to educate their children during this pandemic. “Let me assure you that if we had the authority to begin school as we normally have for decades, we would. Our [school] board, our administration, our teachers, our cafeteria workers, our custodians, everyone in our system wants to provide the best education possible for our students, and we know that that would be in our classrooms as we have been for years. But we are not allowed to proceed as usual right now.”

He pledges to “make adjustments to return to normal just as quickly as we possibly can.” He also encouraged parents to submit their responses to the back to school planning survey found on the web page, which will help school officials better plan for the coming year.

“We are trying to learn from parents what resources they have, and how they want to move forward with us to provide the best education for their children given limitations that we can help with,” Nichols said.

As of Tuesday, they’ve received 1,608 responses which show that less than two-thirds of the students will be returning to school under the hybrid plan, nearly 44 percent of the students need transportation to and from school, and 13 percent do not have access to the internet.

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