Andrew Buchheit has been principal at T. Clay Wood Elementary in Nokesville since the school opened in 2011. His 930 students left school March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And they won’t be back until at least late August — if state leaders can develop a plan to safely reopen the doors.

Buchheit is one of 37 members on a COVID-19 education work group offering guidance to state education officials on how schools across the state can safely open on time in the fall.

Members of the panel include teachers, administrators, students, special education advocates, college presidents and more.

Buchheit said he thinks it’s helpful that various levels of educators are collaborating. 

“If early educators with 4-year-olds are able to have a plan to stagger, I think we can all learn from them, because how can you reign them in?” he said. 

Buchheit said the work group is slated to meet through July, and has scheduled sessions with various education experts, such as school counselors, teachers at all grade levels, private day-care providers, parents and families of students with disabilities, special education teachers, custodial staff and nutrition workers, transportation workers, college faculty, campus reopening staff and more.

The work group is set to provide recommendations for what schools should prepare for before reopening and to ensure continuity of learning. 

After that, the work group is tasked with providing recommendations for long-term recovery plans, which need to address learning gaps and social and emotional needs of students due to school closings. 

“I think what they’re trying to do is gather all of this information,” Buchheit said.

It’s still not certain what education will look like in the fall. 

“Are we starting face to face, is it virtual or staggering [bell times],” he said. “There’s a lot they’re trying to proactively develop ideas and plans to eventually put forward to the governor, but they have to do it for a variety of scenarios.” 

Buchheit is also the president of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals and has served as a principal for over 20 years. 

“What could we put in place to serve the students that we’re all representing?” Buchheit said. “This work group is looking at making sure we’re having that clear communication about pre-K through 20. I’ve been principal for a long time. I haven’t seen us having that pre-K through 20 conversations like we’ve had.”

Buchheit said group members have discussed how their roles have been impacted and what strategies could be put in place to reduce the pandemic’s impact on their position. 

“Right now, we’re close to the end of the year,” Buchheit said. “But to start a new year off like that, we’ll have to work really hard to create those connections. If you have new kindergartners with distance learning, what a challenge.”

He said he would focus on teachers so they can feel comfortable and are able to connect with students through virtual learning.  

Buchheit said he knows students have basic needs such as food, shelter, safety, a sense of belonging in addition to academic needs. 

“We really need to take care of where our students are and from there we can build in the academics and what they need for their work and learning,” he said.

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