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A year later, students set to return to school

Part 1 of a multi-part series

In normal circumstances, students in Suffolk Public Schools would have 180 days of classes in-person.

This year?

Barring any changes in COVID-19 health metrics or a change of heart by the city’s School Board, it’ll be roughly 20 — equivalent to four weeks under a normal school calendar.

But this year is anything but ordinary.

Pre-K through fifth-grade students whose parents chose the hybrid model will return to school for in-person classes twice per week beginning March 15, a full year and two days after they were last in school. Sixth through 12th-grade students whose parents made the same choice will return twice per week beginning March 22. The remaining three days per week will still be for virtual learning.

Other than the 126 students in specialized programs who have gone to school in person once or twice per week, the halls and classrooms have been devoid of students.

In the most recent survey of families to determine how many students would be coming back, 56% opted their students into the hybrid model, with the remaining 44% choosing virtual learning for the rest of the school year. That means of the division’s roughly 13,516 students as of November 2020, 7,569 of them will be returning to classrooms. And of the 7,569 students, 5,958 students — 2,697 elementary, 1,417 middle and 1,843 high school students — will need transportation and 1,611 will not.

The return comes as cases and hospitalizations in the city have been dropping steadily over the past several weeks, with the city’s positivity rate under 10%.

And that return will look markedly different — in obvious and more subtle ways — than when they were last in school March 13, 2020.

Compared to that day, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said there is more information about how COVID-19 is transmitted, and what to do to make for the safest environment possible for students.

“I think the biggest thing is people are now used to the mitigation strategies that we’ve had to put in place,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “Wearing a mask is like putting on socks now.”

Between now and then, students and staff have learned to navigate Chromebooks for their respective uses. But for many, it won’t replace in-person interaction and instruction.

“Hopefully our active engagement of lessons will be able to go up once we get some face-to-face instruction back in place,” Gordon said.

A majority of students, staff and parents expressed satisfaction with the division’s Educate and Innovate learning plan, according to a survey. The learning plan received 80% support from the 828 teachers surveyed, 66% from the 4,342 parents who responded and 53% from the 5,575 students who answered the survey questions. Support for the virtual learning platform ranged from 68% from parents to 75% for staff. The survey noted that only half of the students agreed that virtual learning worked for them.

Gordon acknowledged learning loss, but said there are mitigating factors resulting from the coronavirus pandemic that needs to be taken into account.

“Looking at our grade distribution data, we had more As this year than we did last year,” Gordon said, “but we also had more Fs. It was basically either-or. So when it comes to virtual learning, there’s really not a lot of middle ground. It’s different than face-to-face. In virtual, it either works for you or it doesn’t. And I think after a while, our kids began to get bored. Our kids began to become a little disengaged.”

He said the division is pushing its principals to push teachers to make sure there are active, engaging lessons in the classroom. Initially, during virtual learning, some staff members were trying to fit what they normally did in a 90-minute face-to-face block into a virtual learning environment, which didn’t work.

Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, has been down across the state, Gordon said. Some school divisions, such as Virginia Beach’s, made that information public. He doesn’t feel that information is useful — in context.

“You’re not solving anything,” Gordon said of making that information public. “One of the things you’ve probably heard me say over and over again, people have to understand that we have some kids who had terrible broadband. If they have terrible broadband, how can they get the full lesson? We have some kids who just have a learning issue itself, and if they’re not getting that one-on-one instruction with the teacher while the lesson’s going on, they may not be as successful.”

That was part of the reason, he said, why the division developed enrichment and remediation time at the end of each day, and on Fridays, because it wanted to be able to check-in with students.

However, fewer than 60% of students attended those sessions. And with the challenges posed by virtual learning, he could foresee the declines.

“We are expecting, and I’m sure every school division across the state will tell you, we are expecting a drop in (Standards of Learning) scores,” Gordon said.

He also noted the decline in the graduation rates at each of the city’s three public high schools. Graduation rates at King’s Fork went from 90.6% in 2018-2019 to 84.7% last school year. At Lakeland, it went from 84.4% to 81.4% and at Nansemond River from 95.5% to 94.5%.

“The graduation rate dropped because I canceled or closed down school, so we couldn’t do the (General Education Diploma) test,” Gordon said. “GED tests for us are 5% to 6% of our overall graduation rate.”

Last spring, Gordon said not enough was known about the virus to provide an option for students to take the test.

“I’d rather save somebody than worry about these four or five percentage points,” Gordon said.

Knowing more, Gordon said the division has been able to bring some students in for SOLs as well as PSATs.

Schools now are gearing up for the return of students, with signage in place reminding everyone to keep at least six feet apart, wash hands and wear a mask. Water fountains have also been removed in favor of bottle filling stations, and schools are using federal CARES Act money to install bipolar ionization filters for HVAC systems at every school except for Col. Fred Cherry Middle School and Florence Bowser Elementary School, which already have them.

There will be a trio of different hybrid models for students. At the elementary level, Gordon said there would be little change from a normal schedule though parents, at all levels, are supposed to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms before they go to school.

“You have to be very careful with how much hand-to-hand exchange you’re going to have,” Gordon said, “which is why we’re trying to make as many activities as possible to still be digital and electronic.”

Arrival and departure times from school will be staggered, and students will enter and exit the building from multiple points in order to spread people out. With students in school just twice per week, classrooms will be filled at half their normal levels. Breakfast will be grab-and-go.

Some schools will eat in classrooms, others in the cafeteria and still others in other converted spaces. Elementary students will be more likely to eat in classrooms than at middle or high schools, though at the secondary level, it will likely mean an increased number of lunch shifts to spread people out and make it easier for custodians to clean.

There will still be small group learning and recess.

But for now, students will be focused more on the routine of school and getting used to the new normal, even as the division prepares for what it is calling its SPS Summer Series 2021, with a summer academy, summer school, summer bridge program and an extended school year program to prepare for the next school year.

“At this point in time, because we’re in March … I can’t focus on the learning loss as much,” Gordon said. “I’m now worried about the bridge to next year.”