‘Because now it’s real’

Published 4:55 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

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Officials say students’ social, emotional well-being paramount in hybrid environment

Part 2 of a multi-part series.

The time is almost at hand.

The School Board made it official last month by agreeing to send some students back to school twice per week.

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The buildings have been — and are still being — prepped for the arrival of elementary students beginning March 15 and middle and high school students a week later.

Elementary school schedules have been mailed out, and their bus routes will be announced March 10, the same day schedules for middle and high school students will be mailed and the teacher supply store will open.

And the division has held a Zoom webinar on transitioning children back into the classroom.

But what will classrooms look like when students return?

Those final plans are being sorted through this week, everything from how many students will be in each school on a given day (likely 8 to 12 per class to allow for six feet of social distancing) to where they will eat lunch (depends on the school — some will eat in cafeterias, others in classrooms).

Another of those things is how they will carry out the teaching of students and managing the social and emotional aspects of their return.


No masking the hybrid reality

Elementary students attending school in the hybrid format will get two days of in-person instruction and three days of independent learning activities through the Canvas learning platform. A-Day students will attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays, while B-Day students will be in-person Tuesdays and Thursdays. School will start at 9:25 a.m.

“The elementary level is really not going to look that much different,” Gordon said, “except for the fact that it’s going to be 50% of students in the classroom.”

More activities will be digital and electronic, though things like small groups and recess will still happen.

The expectation is that parents will do the items on the checklist to ensure their children are healthy to go to school, make sure they have a mask before heading to the bus stop, and then their children following masking, distancing and sanitation protocols in school.

At the middle and high school levels, students will be at their school for two days, and get live, virtual instruction for two days, with Fridays continuing to be an independent virtual learning day for all students. Secondary students will also return to their tiered block schedules, with middle school starting at 7:25 a.m. and high school starting at 8:20 a.m.

Those who opted to remain in virtual learning will log in daily for live instruction, with Friday remaining an independent virtual learning day, and students following the school bell schedule. Canvas will still be used.

Teachers at the secondary level will have three options to carry out the learning — Hybrid Sync, Hybrid Flipped or Hybrid 45.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said the division looked mainly at Isle of Wight County, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach’s school divisions, and it took a team of people to Chesapeake — in particular to look at what it has been doing at the secondary level. It’s in part how they came up with the three hybrid models to use for teaching students.

In the Hybrid 45 model, the first 45 minutes of class are for in-person instruction and the second 45 minutes for virtual instruction. The Hybrid Sync has a teacher instructing both in-person and virtual students at the same time, and in Hybrid Flipped, teachers will provide recorded instruction and activities prior to class and then reinforce the material during class. He believes teachers appreciate the flexibility in using different means. Gordon suggested, for instance, that a teacher may likely end up using the Hybrid Sync model if they have 20 students in-person versus two or three virtual.

“We did that because we wanted to give our teachers some flexibility depending on what kids sign up for,” Gordon said.

He said Chesapeake had issues with students switching back and forth between its hybrid and virtual models, something he did not want for Suffolk.

“In Chesapeake, they had a lot of students that were going back and forth,” Gordon said. “They would get to school, realized none of their friends were there, for example, and then they were like, ‘I don’t want to do this any more. Put me virtual.’”

Or, in some cases, the reverse would be true and too many of them were staying virtual to be with friends. He said that while the division wanted to provide more options for teachers, it also wanted to let parents know that for planning purposes, it needed to lock in their children as well into a virtual or hybrid model.

“It’s a lot easier at the secondary level to go from hybrid to virtual, right? But it’s a lot easier at the elementary level to go from virtual to hybrid,” Gordons said. “So we had to make sure that our school community really understands, it’s not just you all making the choice. We then have to be able to count the numbers.

“Will that affect how many total kids are there at the elementary level for a virtual teacher? Now we’ve got to look at the transportation department. You may have been the only kid at that stop. Now that stop has to come off. This then changes the time for every other stop that’s after that. Those are the things sometimes that people don’t realize that we have to be able to do as well as adjusting the attendance expectations and our system of knowing which days the kids are going to be in school.”

The division issued a resource guide to teachers back in November at a time the division was preparing for the possibility of students being back in school during the first semester, before the School Board opted against that and COVID-19 metrics spiked over the winter break and through much of January before falling.

“When you wait from November to March, we’ve got to reteach everybody again,” Gordon said.

It put everyone, he said, in a position to have to revisit and refresh their memories to ensure all aspects of returning to school were covered.

“Because now it’s real,” Gordon said. “We were prepared in September. We were prepared in November.  But now we had to make sure that all that stuff was still fresh in everybody’s head in March.”


Taking care of social and emotional needs

Though Gordon and school officials across the state have noted the learning loss among students since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, managing their return to school for him is as much about the social-emotional part of the equation as it is an academic one.

It’s why, he said, they brought back staff full time into buildings for the entire week before their students start school in person.

“The human mind is built on behavior,” Gordon said, “and so you’ve got to be able to change it and get people used to that type of stuff, and then the last part is really supporting and listening to our kids and families. We’re going to be very, very diligent and observant those first couple of weeks of school. We can plan all this, but if we’re seeing more social-emotional issues, then we may have to expand our morning meetings.”

He said more trainings would take place in March to support kids coming back into a school environment for the first time in a year.

“We don’t know what else was going on in the neighborhood,” Gordon said. “I was really concerned with our kids being out and when we had to cancel winter sports that our students were going to make poor decisions because they were frustrated. So we don’t know what other carryovers may have been happening among the school community.”

During a March 8 SPS virtual presentation on transitioning kids back to the classroom, King’s Fork High School counselor Kathy Routten said parents need to have honest and open discussions about what school will look like when they return, especially factoring in COVID-19.

“You may talk about how things will look different in the classroom, how the class sizes will be smaller and how everyone will be wearing masks,” Routten said, “or you may choose to discuss specific worries or concerns that your students may have.”

She said kids should have a clear understanding about wearing a mask, hand washing and social distancing, but other things may not be so obvious.

“It’s important as a partner to make sure you listen to your children’s fears and concerns,” Routten said. “We all have different things that are of concern to us, particularly as a parent versus a student. So make sure you validate whatever fears or concerns they may have about entering back into the building and back into the classrooms, and also focus on what we can control.”

She said it’s important for parents to focus on being positive about the future, and about the things they can control by being calm and helping children be confident and ready to return to school.

Routten suggested setting goals to help in transitioning back into a school setting.

Elephant’s Fork Elementary School counselor LaToya McGlone said children should be allowed to express their feelings and acknowledge uncertainties, even if that means crying.

She said some things that help include deep breathing exercises, walking, physical exercise and daily affirmations.

“These come in handy, because as you know, negative energy, and negative people never take a day off,” McGlone said. “So we want to make sure that we are empowered and we are equipped with these coping strategies to be able to handle the day-to-day things that come our way.”

McGlone said to watch for behavior or eating changes, or different sleep patterns.

“It … goes back to the affirmation you want to continue to support your child,” McGlone said, “but reassure and encourage them that no matter what, even when you do not know the answer, it’s OK. You’re in this together.”

Kimberlie Reid, school counseling director at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School, called for parents to get their kids back on a daily routine with sleep times and wake-up times and rid learning areas of distractions. And while learning is important, so is rest.

“Students take in a lot of information daily,” Reid said, “so brain breaks are very important as we transition back to the building.”

Once parents know their child’s schedule, she suggested getting a calendar or planner to help keep their child organized, and to keep the lines of communication open between them and their child’s teacher.

“This transition may bring up some new and old feelings for students and parents during these times,” Reid said. “Please feel free to reach out to the school counselors or the school social worker.”

Candance Walton, the lead school social worker for SPS who covers King’s Fork High School, Oakland Elementary School and Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School, said it should be understood that students may have struggled during the pandemic, and that they’ve gone through grief and loss.

“We know that a lot of us have lost loved ones,” Walton said. “I myself, I lost a sister just a year ago due to COVID. So we recognize there are times where there are grief stages, and we can all be in different stages of grief at different times based on our developmental level as well as our relationships.”

Walton said schedules are good, but be flexible to other needs.

“It’s OK to have those feelings,” Walton said, “but sometimes feelings can be temporary.”

Tanetta Hassell of the Western Tidewater Community Services Board, speaking in her role as a trauma-informed counselor, provided some behaviors of students to watch out for, and areas that can cause more concern. She said students can struggle with new routines for up to a month or more.

Hassell said to watch out for signs of physical stress, particularly right before or after school, or a change in appetite, or isolating from their friends or their favorite teachers. Hassell said a school counselor, a school social worker, or a behavioral health or mental health provider could reach out. She said to look for change in at least two settings.

School officials stress that while there are aspects of the back-to-school experience that will be familiar, there are others that will be out of one’s control, whether a student remains in virtual learning or in one of the hybrid models.

“You’re going to be back in that setting,” Gordon said, “but it’s not the same.”