Culpeper School Board votes for blended return to learning

Culpeper County Education Association members hold a rally prior to Monday night's School Board meeting at Floyd T. Binns Middle School.

The Culpeper County School Board voted 4-3 Monday night for a blended-learning model, where some students will attend classes in-person two days a week and work from home three days a week.

Parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school will have the option for them to attend classes 100% virtually. Classes are scheduled to resume Aug. 24. New teachers start Aug. 10.

“It is best to get the kids in front of teachers,” School Superintendent Anthony Brads said, adding: “It is not risk-free.”

After nearly four hours of presentations from administrators Monday night during the meeting at Floyd T. Binns Middle School, Stevensburg District Representative Marshall Keene made the motion for blended learning, with teachers being in-person at the schools even if they are instructing virtually. (Teachers with documented illnesses would be exempt.)

Also voting for the motion were West Fairfax Representative Christina Burnett, Salem District Representative Anne Luckenbill and Cedar Mountain Representative Elizabeth "Betsy" Howard Smith. Voting no were Chairman and North Jefferson District Representative Michelle North, Vice Chairman and East Fairfax Representative Patricia Baker and Catalpa Rep. Barbara Brown.

“In government, what I’ve learned is it’s hard to make everybody happy,” Keene said after the meeting. “You’re not going to make everybody happy with whatever decision you make, but what I’ve learned is through government is, it’s your job as an elected official to have a voice for those who put you in office, and that’s governing.

“It wasn’t my first option; four days a week was my first option,” he said. “Blended was obviously on the board because those parents wanted to get their kids in school. The teachers are great, the teachers are essential personnel. Our parents realize that we need our teachers. Teachers are the backbone of our public education and I think we’re looking forward to getting them back in the schools and back online; whatever role they’re going to be doing … [and] get back to some sort of normalcy with our kids.”

The Culpeper County School Board asked staff earlier this month to formally survey parents on whether they wanted their children to return to class four days a week, two days a week or all online.

Of the 6,292 responses, 43% (2,710) of parents said they wanted their children to learn online,  34% (2,152) said they wanted traditional learning and 23% (1,430) said they wanted a blended model, according to Mark Callahan, division testing specialist and distance learning contact.

The online option was for parents to choose five days per week at home with a school-provided Chromebook. The traditional option was in-person at school four days on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and with at-home assignments on Wednesday. The blended model calls for in-person learning two days a week (either Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday) with completion of assignments at home the other three days a week.

Callahan noted that based on social-distancing guidelines and building capacity, four-day-a-week learning would not be possible. However, it would be feasible with the blended model, he said.

But not all board members agreed with the hybrid model.

“In my heart I would not send any child back,” Baker said. “I can’t.”

In a Facebook posting shortly after the meeting, Brown said: “I did not believe this motion was detailed enough to protect the teachers from being ‘forced’ to teach when this is a life and death decision. I wanted students who wanted to be in school to be allowed to come to school and I wanted the staff to have the same option of having a choice.”

However, Karie Lane, director of elementary instruction, said that if teachers were given the option not to attend in-person, there wouldn’t be enough special-education instructors available at all of the elementary schools. “I don’t have enough staff to pull blended off,” she said of any optional return for teachers.

In a school system survey of teachers, 55.8% (358) said they do not have any restrictions that would limit their ability to return physically to work. Another 37.1% (238) said that while they have no restrictions that would limit their return to work, they prefer to work remotely in light of COVID-19. In addition, 7.1% of teachers (45) said that they have a documented health issue that impacts their ability to return to work physically.

About three-quarters of parents responded to the latest surveys, but administrators noted that they needed everyone to complete the surveys to make sure that the options would work.

Russell Houck, Culpeper County Schools executive director of student services, told the board that every parent who sends their child to school will have to sign a letter of responsibility. He noted that if a COVID-19 case is confirmed within the school, staff will do “close-contact tracing” of staff and students. “It’s possible we could have school-wide closings again,” he said, noting that the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health would have had the final say.

“This has been reviewed by the staff of the Rapidan-Rappahannock Health District, Dr. Wade Kartchner [RRHD medical director] has reviewed this last week and given approval to this plan, so we feel real good about that,” Houck said. The school district’s mitigation plan has to be submitted to the Virginia Department of Education by Aug. 3.

“The operations of our schools will look vastly different,” Houck said. “What we’re really doing is rebuilding the school and this is our foundation. This is the part we have to get right in order to have in-person teaching, so we want everyone to know what we’re expecting of our staff and our parents for us to make this happen.”

In the meantime, the district will do “training, training, training” on safety measures for teachers and staff. The district will still have plenty of personal protection equipment on hand, including extra masks for students.

When it comes to bus transportation, students living within a half-mile of school will have to either walk or bike, unless they are handicapped. “We need to save seats for kids who have no other option,” Houck said.

He noted that no one will be admitted into schools unless they are wearing a mask. Several representatives spent large segments of the School Board meeting not wearing theirs; Keene didn’t wear a mask at all during the entire meeting.

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