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Plan to reopen schools coming in July

Following the release of state guidance on how to reopen schools this fall, Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III plans to announce at the July 9 School Board meeting how the division will open schools in the fall.

“I need to be honest and let you all know that unless we move to Phase III and beyond — because we’re in Phase II right now in Suffolk — we will more than likely not start the school year with 100 percent of our students in the classroom,” Gordon said during a Facebook Live chat Friday that garnered more than 13,000 views. “And so, we’re looking at logistics right now.”

Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice is heading up a division task force consisting of central office administrators, building administrators, teachers and parents to develop ideas for how reopening will look. He said a survey will go out to parents during the week of June 22-26 in which they will be asked for their preference among several hybrid virtual and in-person opening scenarios, including one which would be 100-percent virtual.
“Whatever plan we come up with, we’re going to look at two potential end dates,” Gordon said. “The first one — and a lot of this is going to depend on how quickly we move through the Commonwealth of Virginia with the CDC regulations — the first potential end date for whatever the percentages that we kind of settle on would be Oct. 2. So basically, it would be one month of having percentages of our students in school.”

Gordon said special education students, English language learners and pre-K through second grade students would likely come to school more often. He said SPS Connect, which began with secondary students, will expand to all grade levels. Gordon said Director of Technology John Littlefield is working on age-appropriate technology for students across the division.

However the school year starts, it will still start Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.

There will also not be any Standards of Learning tests in the fall, and it’s possible, Gordon said, that there will be no SOLs next spring.

Gordon said everyone in schools will have to practice social distancing.

“The key variable for us determining what percentage of students we can actually have in the building is how many kids we can get on the bus,” Gordon said.

The more than 100 pages of state guidelines released last week includes social distancing on buses, keeping each person six feet apart from one another, unless they are siblings.

Gordon said there would only be one student in every other seat on the bus. The Transportation Department has told Gordon that for every bus used on a route now, the division would need five buses to handle each route with social distancing measures in place.

“That’s going to really drive the percentage, and we’re going to still also want to make sure that parents do have the option of taking your kids to school on whatever that designated day is going to be. You will probably have the option also of having 100-percent virtual learning.”

Gordon stressed the need for parents to turn in their transportation forms.

He said at most 10 students will be in a classroom, with all desks facing the same way, as collaboration for group work won’t be possible.

“The collaboration is now going to have to take place virtually,” Gordon said. “We’ve revised our lesson plans so that they’re now called instruction innovation plans. … Teachers now have to have a technology component in there.”

At the elementary level, they will roll out the I-Ready program as the platform for those students. Two teachers at Northern Shores Elementary School have already piloted the program and spoke highly of it during last Thursday’s School Board meeting.

Gordon said elementary teachers will be completing Google Classroom training to aid in this.

Feedback from the use of Edgenuity for high school students, Gordon said, centered on three issues: extended period of time for students to get through the modules, audio issues and a lack of teacher support, which will be a focus for building administrators going forward.

Dealing with health issues in the classroom, Gordon said students would not undergo COVID-19 testing. He said the division is still determining whether every student and staff member will have to undergo a temperature check prior to entering the school building every day — the division has purchased 170 to 175 thermometers — but every staff member will be required to wear a mask.

For any staff member with pre-existing conditions, “we’re also going to try and make sure those are probably going to be the ones who will lead our virtual instruction.”

Gordon said he did not think it was realistic to expect all students to wear a mask, but would encourage it. The division has also purchased more hand sanitizer and air dryers for bathrooms.

“The key thing I’m going to need from the school community — it’s parents, guardians, whomever — if your kid is not feeling well, do not send them to school,” Gordon said. “Remember, this is why we have this virtual piece there, and the teachers will be able to have that communication so we don’t have to worry about that.”

He said the state Department of Education would likely be giving school divisions flexibility on attendance, “where we won’t have to worry about that 95-percent threshold.”

Gordon also said that with fewer students in school and using less space in the building, that each school would likely expand their clinics to handle anyone who gets sick during the school day.

He said he is awaiting more guidance from the Virginia Department of Health on how they will handle issues of COVID-19 in the classroom .

Guidance Gordon has received from biweekly superintendents meetings indicates that the state might be able to move to Phase III in four to eight weeks.

“I can’t just tell you that this is going to be back to normal Sept. 8,” Gordon said.

The learning plan for the fall will look different than what has been in place since schools closed in March and the division went to a virtual and home learning plan. He stressed that the division had just two-and-a-half weeks to come up with a virtual learning plan. And for anyone to think that the plan was going to replace the traditional instructional model “was not realistic.”

Gordon also bristled at criticism that the division lowered standards for students in Edgenuity. The division initially stated that students needed to complete at least 80 percent of the work with a 63 percent or better to earn an A grade. However, the division later adjusted the threshold of completion to 70 percent. Gordon said that was a disservice to special education students or to others who took a little bit longer to complete the work.

“The hybrid learning plan, the fall learning plan that we’re going to put into place will not look like the Virtual SPS plan that we had this year, this fourth nine weeks,” Gordon said. “It will not look like the Mastery SPS plan with the packets.”

He said students, especially with the pandemic and civil unrest going on in the country, need to be welcomed, loved and supported when they come back to school in the fall, whatever the model ends up being.

“Instruction and school will never be the same,” Gordon said. “It will never be the same. And so we have to be able to adjust to understand that it’s not going to look like it did last year. It’s definitely not going to look like it did when we were in school. We are going to have to have different ways to meet these kids’ needs, because there is going to be some reteaching that’s going to go on in the fall.”