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Wythe School Board unveils plan for the upcoming academic year
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Wythe School Board unveils plan for the upcoming academic year

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School will look drastically different in 2020-21 under a plan released Thursday by Wythe County Public Schools.

The school’s return-to-learning plan looks to introduce a new normal to the system, one that ensures learning takes place no matter where students and staff are located. Snow days are history.

Wythe County students will begin the school year Aug. 24 with what is being called the hybrid schedule. Under the plan, students will alternate between in-person instruction and distance learning.

While one group of students attends school in-person on Mondays and Wednesdays, a second group will learn remotely. The groups will switch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the at-home group in school and the in-school group at home. Fridays will be remote learning for everyone.

The school system notes that cleaning and disinfecting will take place daily.

The situation is very fluid, Wythe County School Superintendent Scott Jefferies said. But the school board wants to give students and parents an idea of what to expect come August. Although the year will begin with the hybrid plan, Jefferies said that if the coronavirus gets worse in the area, students could move to 100% distance learning. The plan leaves open the possibility of a form of traditional in-person instruction at some point during the year, too.

“We feel strongly that some in-person instruction to begin with is better than none,” he said. “In fact if we see changes and it becomes possible for us to bring all students back every day, we will do all we can to make that happen.”

Under the distance learning option, pre-K through second-grade students will receive iPads, and third-graders through high school seniors will receive Chromebooks. For those without Internet access, lessons and activities can be uploaded to devices for at-home use.

The third option, which brings all students back to school, will have some changes. Students and staff will have to remain socially distant, wear personal protective equipment, undergo daily screenings and stay away from large gatherings. Athletics and activities will return during this option, according to the plan.

Under both the hybrid instruction plan students can only ride their assigned bus on their assigned days. Students will be required to wear a face masks while riding the school bus.

Families will be given the option to only use distance learning.

The schools system is looking to stay ahead of the virus by instituting a rigorous cleaning schedule. Buses will be disinfected after morning and afternoon runs, classrooms will be cleaned daily and cleaned deeply – with electrostatic sprayers – once a week. Restrooms, hallways and water stations will be cleaned throughout the school day.

In addition, students will have their temperatures recorded every morning and then report directly to their first class.

“We will have school nurses and other staff members to welcome students and staff every day,” Jefferies said, adding that each school has hand-held thermometers to scan foreheads. Eventually, officials hope to have wrist scanners to check temperatures at each school.

Officials plan to make schools as safe and clean as possible, the superintendent said.

Students will eat breakfast and lunch in the classroom, carrying their meal trays from the cafeteria. Students in the lower grades will eat in the cafeteria. Each school will be responsible for a plan to dismiss students in small groups.

Along with other changes, schools will restrict travel and eliminate communal areas. Water fountains have also been eliminated, replaced with water bottle filling stations.

Students are to remain socially distanced while at school – what that means for recess and play time is uncertain.

“How that looks for recess, I honestly don’t know,” Jefferies said. “We are struggling and trying to figure it out, but we will figure it out in time.”

Students and staff will be highly encouraged to wear face masks during the day, except those with underlying health conditions that prevent it.

“Not only would it protect our students, but will protect our teachers and staff in the building,” Jefferies said. “We want to do our best to take care of each other.”

Students under the age of 10 are not required to wear masks, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Jefferies said.

Schools will also set up isolation rooms, where employees or students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms can be kept separate from the rest of the population. If a student or staff member is diagnosed with the virus, the school will be shuttered for a two- to five-day window and distance learning will be utilized.

According to the document, components of the plan, which allows for 100% distance learning, will become permanent fixtures for students “as the education world moves towards remote and virtual learning.”

Regarding school sports next year, the Virginia High School League is slated to hold a special called meeting on July 15 at 9 a.m. in Charlottesville. Discussion of the fall sports season is the third item on the agenda.

In June, the VHSL took no action on whether there would be a fall season and if so when it would begin. At that meeting, VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun advised committee members – comprised mainly of school superintendents, principals and athletic directors – that the league would schedule the July meeting and another in August to further discuss fall sports. Fall sports include football, volleyball, cross country and golf.

Haun said that we can’t think about playing team sports while social distancing. Another issue with a sports season, according to Haun, is how would students not in school on a five-day week practice. He said staggered schedules, like the one Wythe has opted for, would create equity issues for student athletes since some could not get to practice every day.

On top of that, Haun questioned the financial drain sports would take on school systems if spectator attendance is limited. Without Friday night crowds, he noted, there wouldn’t be the money to pay officials, workers or the cost of buses to carry teams to contests.

In May, the VHSL floated the idea of having shortened sports seasons with the fall competitions kicking off in mid-February, after winter sports.

Jefferies said a team of more than 50 teachers, staff members, principals and central office staff members, many of them parents, worked on the proposed return to learning plan for months.

“We had a really strong group of individuals that really contributed for two months to put this thing together,” he said. “They did a fantastic job from beginning to end on this thing.”

He said the plan isn’t perfect, but perfection is not possible in these changing and often chaotic times.

“We can’t let perfect get in the way of what we know right now,” he said. “We wanted to give families time to adjust. And if they have concerns, they can let us know that they want to take the distance learning option, and that is fine. They will have the support of teachers and staff no matter the grade level or content level.”

As for how distance learning will affect earlier plans to remodel and/or replace Spiller Elementary School and Scott Memorial Middle School, Jefferies said it’s way too early to know.

“We aren't in a position right now to even guess how any of this may impact future projects, unfortunately. We have been and will continue to be focused on opening this year the best way that we can,” he said, adding that the hybrid and distance learning models are new and necessary ways to deliver education.

Nevertheless, the superintendent said, “all of us are looking forward to the time when we can get all of our students and staff back in our schools.”

To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email mrothrock@wythenews.com.

Mark Sage contributed to this report.

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