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Wise County school superintendent: Transportation will complicate reopening

Mike Still • Jun 10, 2020 at 8:30 PM

 WISE — School reopenings under Tuesday’s announcement by Gov. Ralph Northam featured prominently in the Wise County School Board’s discussion.

Superintendent Greg Mullins told board members that any variation under the state’s new “Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020” reopening plan that involves bringing students back into school buildings in the fall will face several challenges. Transportation, however, runs through most options in the RRR 2020 plan.

Part of the three-phase RRR 2020 plan, unveiled publicly Tuesday by Northam and state Superintendent of Instruction James F. Lane, requires distancing of students on school buses by limiting seating to one student in every other seat except for siblings from the same household.

The three phases of the RRR 2020 parallel the phases in Northam’s Forward Virginia plan to reopen businesses and public facilities. Phase one allows for in-person special education, child care for working families and for school-based summer camp activities to be held in schools. Phase two, which connects to Forward Virginia’s phase two business reopening now in effect for most of the state, would allow preschool through third grades and English learner in-person classes in school facilities.

Phase three would allow all grade levels to return to in-person classes, but under 6-foot distancing in classes and spacing of one person every other row in school buses. Faculty and staff would have to wear face coverings, but students would only be encouraged to wear masks as developmentally appropriate.

Phase three would also restrict mixing groups of students and would involve staggered class scheduling as well as staggered use of cafeterias and other communal spaces in schools. If unable to stagger their use, schools would have to close those spaces. Lane said that could mean serving students their meals in classrooms instead of cafeterias.

Even if staggering class schedules to alternating days for groups of students were put in place when school starts again, Mullins said, it would take three days to bring every student in for one day of school under a phase three reopening.

“With the buses we have, even the largest would be reduced to 12 to 13 students, even if we use an A-B schedule,” Mullins said of alternating days for students.

Distancing would also affect programs such as learning centers, libraries and reading rooms in schools, Mullins said. Group tables in many schools are only 5 feet long, he said, while RRR 2020 calls for a 6-foot separation of students in class settings. Besides raising the need for individual student desks in those settings, it also reduces the capacity of those facilities.

High schools, given the number and variety of classes, would face even tighter space availability, Mullins said.

When board members asked about athletic programs in a reopening, Mullins said RRR 2020 requirements for distancing of athletes, coaches, referees and spectators would make regular season play difficult and possibly stop season play for football because of transportation. Extracurricular activities would also become complicated because of staggering class days and lower bus capacity.

If some sports cannot be played, Mullins said, that cuts revenue streams from game admission and could impact sports dependent on revenue from football, basketball and baseball games. Having any kind of athletic season would be “extremely difficult,” he added. Transportation directors from Southwest Virginia school divisions will be discussing limitations from the state plan, Mullins said.

“Without some variance, it will really be a chore to transport kids to activities and school,” Mullins said

Mullins later said that a phase three reopening would be the worst case for the county school division. He said that the county’s virtual summer school program in June will provide additional experience if the division has to go with either allowing students from third grade and lower into the schools or if a waiver is requested from the state Department of Education to continue remote classes in the early weeks of the fall semester.

“It would be a lot simpler if we conducted classes remotely or brought every student back to school at the same time,” Mullins said. “Of the three scenarios, (phase three) was the worst for us. Whatever scenario we’re asked to use, we’ll have the very best plan we can develop.”

High school graduations, which have been delayed by the pandemic, will happen during the week of July 25-31, Mullins said. Each of the three county high schools will conduct ceremonies in a format similar to that used by Lee County Schools last week. Each school will set times for graduates to arrive to receive diplomas while being recorded for a graduation CD for each high school. Valedictorians, salutatorians and class presidents will be recorded giving their speeches, and graduates and their families will have a photo session afterward.

“What was important to the students was that they could have a way to share the experience and cheer each other on,” Mullins said.

Date ranges for each high school’s graduation ceremonies will be announced in a few days, Mullins said.

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