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Superintendent recommends virtual learning to start school year

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III has recommended virtual learning for the first nine weeks of the school year due to the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state.

“We all wanted our students to be back in school in our traditional face-to-face model on Sept. 8,” Gordon wrote in a letter to SPS families. “However, it is clear that there are too many risks at this time based on our evolving health information.”

Besides noting the rise in COVID-19 cases — the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Suffolk, has a seven-day positivity rate of 12 percent — Gordon also cited the renewed restrictions announced by Gov. Ralph Northam July 28.

“I firmly believe that a virtual start, which would occur for at least the first nine weeks of the school year, is the most prudent way to protect the health and safety of all our staff members and students,” Gordon wrote.

The School Board is expected to vote on the plan at its Aug. 6 meeting.

The division’s plan, Educate and Innovate, calls for teachers to provide instruction using several online platforms such as Canvas, i-Ready for elementary students, Edgenuity for secondary students and Google Classroom.

He said teachers will be expected to provide the virtual instruction from their school buildings Mondays through Thursdays, and the plan will give teachers the option to telework to provide instructional support for students, office hours to communicate with parents and professional learning.

The part of the plan to have teachers work from school buildings comes amid the parent surveys that highlighted concerns about teacher and staff engagement with students during the last nine weeks of the 2019-2020 school year, when the division transitioned to virtual learning. Dr. Suzanne Rice, chief of administrative services, acknowledged this during a presentation to the board last month.

“That was a real problem for us, and we recognize that,” Rice told the board at its July meeting. “And that is going to be something that’s going to be addressed. We are going to come up with (a way) of monitoring this. It will be a very systematic way that we ensure that there’s not only the student engagement, but that the teachers are following through as we have asked them to do.”

Gordon wrote that having staff come into buildings “will provide a consistent instructional model,” which includes teachers having all of their resources in the classroom, allowing administrators to provide real-time observation to staff members on the overall engagement of the lesson, the school division’s ability to support adequate broadband for virtual instruction platforms and a separation of work and home for staff mental health.

For staff with pre-existing medical conditions and in a high-risk category for COVID-19, they will work with the division’s human resources department and building administrators to allow them to work from home.

The first nine weeks of virtual learning would be from Sept. 8. through Nov. 2, though special education students in specialized programs will return to school four days per week for in-person instruction.

The rest of the division’s plan is tentative based on Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 data, but the second nine weeks — from Nov. 4 through Jan. 29, 2021 — would have students in schools for one or two days per week, with students divided in two or four cohorts. Students riding division vehicles must wear a mask while riding, and College and Career Academy of Pruden students would have in-person instruction twice per week.

The third and fourth nine week periods — Feb. 1 through April 14, 2021 — would have students in school five days per week.

The division would continue to monitor COVID-19 data to determine whether it would need to alter its approach.

All students will attend virtual classes from 8:30 a.m. until 3:05 p.m. and have a specific learning schedule. Elementary students would have a break from 10:10 until 10:25 a.m., while middle and high school students would have a morning break from 10:25 until 10:40 a.m. Lunch would be from 11:50 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for elementary students, and from 11:35 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. for middle and high school students.

Elementary students would have a 15-minute block for homeroom and morning meetings with social-emotional learning, followed by core-integrated instruction — with both synchronous and independent learning. After the morning break, students will have core-integrated instruction.

Following lunch, students will, on alternating days, have a resource class followed by remediation and small group enrichment, followed by either remediation, gifted resource/talented and music/art. Those will be building-specific.

For sixth- and seventh-grade middle school students, they will also have virtual school from 8:30 a.m. until 3:05 p.m. There will be a one-hour block to start the day, followed by a 45-minute block, a 15-minute break and a 45-minute block before lunch. After lunch, there will be another 45-minute block, followed by two 55-minute enrichment periods.

Eighth-graders and high school students will have a similar schedule of one hour-long period of learning to start the day, with three 45-minute periods, sandwiched with the morning break and lunch, followed by two 55-minute enrichment and support periods.

Child care will also be provided for children ages 4 through 12, with first priority going to employees with students attending division schools, followed by disenfranchised students and children of division employees who do not live in the city. The program will be administered by AlphaBEST Education Inc., with registration open Aug. 10-14. Childcare will begin Sept. 8 — the first day of school. The childcare program would run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an early risers program running from 7 to 9:25 a.m., the AlphaAcademy program going from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. and the after hours program going from 4 to 6 p.m.

Breakfast and lunch packets would be delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at designated bus stops for all students and families. The division expects that the lunch windows provided for students to get their lunch from the bus stop and have plenty of time to eat.

Gordon said the division is “fully prepared to support our students and staff in this new normal of education.”