In a letter to families Wednesday, Manassas City Public Schools laid out a series of potential plans for the 2020-21 school year that range from full in-person classes to entirely online instruction, although Superintendent Kevin Newman said the final plan will probably land somewhere in the middle.
Newman and the school board have formulated the plans over the course of two meetings. The options will be formally presented to the school board on July 8, and a final decision is expected to be made at the board’s July 14 meeting.
In an interview with InsideNoVa, Newman said that although the board is keeping complete in-person instruction as an option, he didn’t see a way that that would be feasible come September.
“The 100% in-person option, that’s on the table but … that’s not going to happen. There’s no way we can get 100% of our students in,” Newman said Wednesday morning.
Other options include what Newman called the “50% model,” in which students would be in classrooms two days a week and receive online instruction during the other three. Or, Newman said, the board could adopt the “25% model,” which would have students in class just one day a week. Special education students may receive additional in-person instruction.
Students would have staggered days of in-person learning in order to keep class sizes down and allow for proper physical distancing, but Newman emphasized that in any of these in-person/virtual hybrid plans, the district would make it a priority to keep families on the same schedule. For instance, if a family had two students -- one in elementary school and the other in high school -- the two would have the same days of in-person and virtual learning to make transportation easier and to provide caretakers with more consistency.
Finally, Newman is presenting an option of entirely virtual learning. The superintendent said the district is where it needs to be in terms of resources to allow for online learning for each student.
When schools abruptly closed in March, the school system distributed nearly 2,000 laptops to students. The system has ordered new computers over the summer to have one for every student, and the district bought wi-fi hotspots for students who previously lacked internet access. Last week, Manassas City Council gave the school district nearly $1 million in CARES Act funding to meet the technological needs.
Students and families will face a number of potential challenges as a result of any virtual learning. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidance for schools that “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented,” the statement reads, “and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”
Newman said he understands those concerns and the burden on families and caretakers, but the safety of students and staff comes first. Throughout its planning, the school board has tried to alleviate as much of that burden from parents as possible, Newman said, and school psychologists and “wellness teams” will be available for families throughout the year.
Depending on the trajectory of the virus, potential treatments or vaccines and other circumstances, Newman added that any plan adopted by the school board in July could be modified going forward.
“At some point during the school year I would not be shocked if we used multiple versions of what we presented …” Newman said. “I hope that we can get to the point at some point … where all our kids and staff will be in our buildings and back to as normal as possible, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the old normal. But I also would not be shocked if at some point during the year, if things take a turn for the worst … that we’re going to have to pull out the 100% virtual model.”
Tim Demeria, a school board member, said the board’s task force would weigh all the different considerations and options before making its decision July 14. Ultimately, though, he said keeping the spread of COVID-19 in check is the most effective way to get students as much in-person instruction as possible.
In Northern Virginia, the seven-day average of new infections is at its lowest point since early April, but nationally the virus is surging, with cases increasing in 39 states.
“If we’re able to go back full-time, that’s what we’re shooting for as a board, but the way things are panning out right now, I think we’ll be lucky to go back at all,” Demeria said. “I am very concerned for the health of our students and our staff… There will be lots of plans that never put in place because that’s not what the pandemic is dictating. We’re not in charge, the pandemic is in charge.”