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Temporary policy on SOL tests, credits established / December 30, 2020

The Mecklenburg County School Board has approved a temporary policy to ease requirements for verified academic credits at the secondary level in response to educational challenges arising from the coronavirus pandemic — school closures, virtual learning and other disruptions.

During their final meeting of the year, Dec. 15, trustees adopted the policy, which reflects Virginia Department of Education guidelines that apply to students enrolled in high school credit courses during this fall semester only. The policy allows students to earn verified credits needed for graduation under certain conditions even if they fail to achieve a score of 400 or higher on SOL exams.

Students who successfully complete the objectives of a course and take the equivalent of 140 clock hours of instruction, but who fail to achieve SOL scores of 400 or above can still earn verified credits if they receive SOL scores of between 350 and 399. Students must also demonstrate to a review panel a mastery of the standards, competencies, and objectives of the entire course.

The review panel, made up of three teachers, will look at evidence of the student’s achievement over the course of semester, which may include the results of their classroom assignments, performance on division-wide exams, course grades and additional academic assignments as the panel deems appropriate.

The review panel has sole and final discretion when it comes to deciding whether the student has demonstrated adequate knowledge of the course and whether to award the verified credit. Alternately, the panel can deny the credit or seek additional academic assignments from the student prior to making a determination of whether to award the credit.

Joan Hite, executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the emergency policy had to be approved before the start of SOL testing on Jan. 11 in order for students to qualify for a verified credit under the modified standards.

She stressed that for the newly adopted emergency policy to apply, students must have been enrolled in the class for which verified credits are awarded in the fall of 2020. If parents choose not to send their kids to school in January for purposes of SOL testing, they will not be awarded a verified credit until such time as they take and pass the SOL with a score of 400 or above (or a score of 375-399 on a retake exam) and fulfill the course requirements.

“We cannot make parents send their students to school in January to take the SOLs,” Hite said, even though neither the state nor the federal government is waiving the mandate that students earn verified credits through the SOL tests. Similarly, the Virginia Department of Education is not backing off on any of its requirements for high school graduation.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said he’d heard from several parents who wondered why students had to take SOL exams in January and why it could not be administered virtually. He explained that in-person testing was required to preserve the “integrity” of the testing process. As to the timing of the tests, Nichols said, “the school division cannot pick and choose when to offer the SOL test. The division is only given a window of time during which to offer the test from the state.”

He confirmed that “parent can choose to not send their child for the test, but the child must have that verified credit to graduate and so must take the SOL. The next available date for the SOL is in the spring.” He attempted to reassure parents, explaining that the only secondary students who will be returning to school in January will be those needing to take an SOL to earn a verified credit for graduation. They will only be at school for the duration of the test.

Transportation has been arranged for these students and safety protocols will be imposed such as mask wearing and social distancing.

Trustee Dora Garner was concerned that the emergency policy did not allow for students to earn a verified credit if they failed the course yet passed the SOL. She said in the past students who earned a grade of “D” and passed the SOL were awarded a verified credit. She was told by Hite that that practice was never formally adopted as a policy.

Wanda Bailey asked where the division stood as far as developing “our own performance based assessments” as an alternative to the SOL exams. Nichols said the Virginia General Assembly intervened and put the brakes on eliminating SOL exams for reading, math and science. He called it “a flip flop at a very critical time” since the Department of Education had been moving forward to training and guidelines that would have allowed for the development of alternative assessments. For now, the division is only able to and is currently developing a performance-based assessment for writing.

School Board Chairman Gavin Honeycutt expressed the worry that there could be legal implications should the school division refuse to award a student a verified credit for failing a class because of technology issues such as lack of access to reliable internet.

Hite reiterated that parents have the right to not send their kids to take the test and promised that the school division “will do the best we can to make sure the students earn their verified credit.”

While the policy, as approved, does not authorize a review panel to award a verified credit in instances such as that described by Garner, Bailey said she hoped a review panel would be convened for students that don’t pass the class but pass the SOL. “I hope the panel will award the verified credit.”

This prompted Glenn Edwards to ask, rhetorically, “When will the state realize that it may have made a mistake?” He shared what he said were the frustrations of parents and teachers by noting, “We can’t help the kids who are at home without the technology to study and be taught. So, the state is holding these kids responsible for coming in and taking a test of materials that virtually they couldn’t learn because of technological limitations.

“We can spend millions and millions of dollars on stupidity, but this state can’t get enough technology in our counties to teach these kids,” Edwards said. “Then they want to hold our teachers hostage and make them look bad because the kids did not learn. It’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s a money problem and it’s directed in the wrong places.”

Hite replied, “that’s a valid point” and reinforced Edwards’ point by sharing news that the Virginia Department of Education would not be issuing accreditation ratings for school this year, “so no school will go into warning. That’s fine, but it still does not help the high school student trying to earn a verified credit because they have to have the verified credit in order to graduate.

“While the school might come out okay, the student will suffer because of it,” said Hite, referring to the mandate for students to pass the SOL to earn a verified credit.

In other business, trustees agreed to pass on to the joint education committee recommendations related to the county’s three oldest elementary schools, in Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse. The recommendations call for renovations to begin at the three elementaries as soon as high school and middle school students move into the consolidated secondary complex in Baskerville in 2022. The joint education committee is comprised of members of the board of supervisors and school board.

The elementary school recommendations were developed with the assistance of Ballou, Justice Upton Architects and engineers with Skanska — partners in the secondary school construction project. In addition to starting renovations soon after the new Baskerville school opens, the architects and engineers recommend that work at Clarksville, Chase City and La Crosse should commence simultaneously at the three sites.

The plan envisions that

» elementary students would be moved into the newly vacated high school buildings at Bluestone and Park View during construction to avoid disruption and the need to bring portable classrooms onto the elementary school grounds.

» the oldest portions of each elementary building would be demolished, and new structures erected that would connect to those portions of the buildings constructed in the 1980s and mid-2000s.

Nichols said the recommendation to raze the oldest portion of each elementary school arose from the cost of abating the asbestos and upgrading heating and ventilation systems at each school, which would be more expensive than new construction.

Trustee Lindell Palmer worried about relocating students to Bluestone High School during construction, noting that many areas in that facility also are problematic from a heating and ventilation standpoint. Nichols responded, ”Many things could take place in the joint education [committee meeting]. Right now the primary goal is to advance the current recommendation.”

Nichols reminded board members that while it is the hope of the school division that all students — primary and secondary — will be offered the opportunity to return to in-person learning at the start of the second semester in February the division is remaining flexible and monitoring the spread of the virus in the county. He called the decision to reopen the schools or continue virtually “hot button issues that create emotion and tension.”

Even if the number of cases is sufficiently down, Nichols said MCPS will continue to make virtual education opportunities available to all students. The school division is still looking at options for secondary students to return to in person learning at the start of the second semester. Based on the numbers of students who will like return to the school buildings, Nichols said the elementary schedule will remain unchanged while high school students will attend on a alternating week hybrid schedule.

“We know we are not going to make everyone happy but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to ensure the safety of our teachers, students and staff and help them learn,” Nichols said.

The Virginia Department of Education is looking at continuing virtual education opportunities for the 2021-22 school year and beyond. Nichols said he was concerned about the impact of that on student learning and feels that students must be able to show they can adequately learn virtually before opening the opportunity up to all students.

“Local schools need to have authority to control school attendance,” he said.

This prompted Honeycutt to lament that “if the state says school must be virtual, then the [new consolidated secondary school] building up on the hill [in Baskerville] will be Mecklenburg’s folly.”

Bailey asked whether the school division was ordering additional hot spots for elementary students who were sent home to learn virtually just before the Christmas break. Nichols replied, “We are looking for additional opportunities to work with students but not sure if additional hotspots will be available.”

Bailey then asked to see a grade distribution for all students as of the end of the first nine weeks. Honeycutt asked if previously high performing students qualify for an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) because they are failing their online classes. He was told “no” by Nichols, but there are counseling and tutoring options available.

Students who do have an IEP will no longer need for the plan to be rewritten every time the student switches between virtual and in-person learning. By signing and granting consent to an IEP, the parents or guardians of the student are agreeing that the school division can adjust the IEP services between the school and remote locations based on the School Board’s reassignment of the student to a different location to receive IEP services or decision to open and close school buildings or classrooms, and the availability of specific services at a particular location.

Edwards called this a relief for special education teachers who are overburdened by state mandated paperwork involving their special education students.

Nichols shared that the “Phoenix band” — a mix of students from the Bluestone and Park View high school band programs — played at the South Hill Reverse Christmas Parade on Dec. 4 under the guidance of former Bluestone High School band director and current School Board member Ricky Allgood.

Nichols closed the meeting by observing, “This has been the toughest year ever. We are facing challenging issues that will require grace. We hope we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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