Henrico school board votes to expand optional in-person learning for second nine weeks

Updated: Oct. 22, 2020 at 11:15 PM EDT
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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - Henrico school leaders voted Thursday on how students should return to learning during the second nine weeks of the school year.

All but one school board member (4-1) voted to expand optional in-person learning opportunities for students during the second nine weeks.

The decision came after months of school board work sessions (five of them), COVID-19 health updates, and major changes physically within the school system, including the gradual start of bringing students back into the classroom.

During Thursday’s work session, the Henrico County Public School Health Committee provided an update on COVID-19 impacts in the region and a recommendation for the second nine weeks of school.

Health leaders on the committee and a representative from the Henrico County Health District said health metrics currently support the option of expanding in-person learning opportunities.

As a result, the health committee and the HCPS administration recommended a plan to expand optional in-person learning opportunities for the second nine weeks of school and beyond.

However, a fully virtual option will still be available for students who do not want to return to the classroom right away.

“Teachers do not have that option, do not have that choice,” said HCPS teacher Kathy Woodard. “They are clearly communicating, they are clearly saying, that they value the choice of parents over the choice, safety and the lives of those children’s teachers.”

Woodard was one of the dozens of teachers who spoke Thursday during the two-hour public comment period allocated ahead of the board’s vote.

Despite having emergency surgery on Saturday, her presence at Thursday’s vote was incredibly important to her.

“This is really life and death,” Woodard said. “Particularly, I’m concerned about the county’s plan to have teachers and students eat in the classrooms. There is no safe way to have students and teachers eat in a classroom with their masks off. The CDC has shown that it is now spread through aerosol, so once you take your mask off and eat your lunch… everyone is going to be unsafe.”

“The news I’m watching says were spiking in 41 states, and in 6 to 12 weeks is scheduled to increase drastically,” said Kristi B. Kinsella, the only board member who voted against the expansion.

During the administration’s presentation, staff members said if the board voted for expanded in-person learning opportunities, students would eat at their desks or in pods in certain areas of the school buildings.

However, the proposal does come with gradual student reintroductions into the building.

Both the health committee and administration proposed a phased approach for expanding in-person learning starting with elementary school students.

A proposed timeline by administrators - which was passed - shows PreK through second grade could return to the classroom four days per week as soon as Nov. 30; third through fifth graders could return as early as Dec. 7.

The board also voted for students to learn virtually Jan. 4-8 to allow for students and teachers to isolate due to potential COVID-19 exposure during winter break.

“Virtual school is not working for any of them. They are not OK,” said an elementary school parent.

“I think they should have kid’s points of view because that’s really important,” said sixth-grader Caitlin Corby. “It shouldn’t just be adults; it should be kids who are learning virtually.”

Twelve-year-old Corby is a sixth-grader at Tuckahoe Middle School. She said learning online has had its positive moments, but she would rather return to the classroom.

“I’m a hands-on learner; I’m better in school than I am at a computer,” she said.

However, even with the board expanding in-person learning, Corby and other middle and high school students would not be able to get back into the classroom until the second semester.

Based on the proposed timeline, most middle and high school- the proposal would not be able to start in-person learning until February.

The school board vote comes after several recent efforts by HCPS to gather as much input from the community, staff, and families as possible.

On Tuesday, a virtual listening town hall was hosted by two school board members to gather input from families, students, and community members about what they would like to see happen starting Nov. 16.

In early October, a survey was sent to families and teachers asking for their thoughts on possible hybrid in-person learning options for students. Meanwhile, teachers were given options of whether they would likely return to the classroom or seek alternative options such as a leave of absence, etc.

Survey results released Monday by the school system showed at least 50% of families would rather keep their children learning virtually over the three hybrid options presented.

Results from the teacher survey show more than 75% are willing to return to the classroom on Nov. 16. However, more than 55% also chose other options including:

  • “I will be requesting an accommodation (e.g., the ability to teach exclusively virtually, intermittent leave, etc.) based on a medical condition, and I will contact the Human Resources Department accordingly.” (25.8%)
  • “I will be requesting leave based on the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and will contact the Human Resources Department accordingly.” (9.2%)
  • “I plan to seek release from contract or resignation.”(9.1%)
  • “I plan to seek discretionary leave.”( 9.1%,)
  • “I plan to seek retirement.” (2.0%)

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