How local schools are approaching returning more students to the classroom

How many students come back, priority for certain groups

The push to get students back into the classroom is underway in Martinsville and Salem.

SALEM, Va. – Getting kids back in the classroom. That’s the push from Gov. Ralph Northam who said last week he wanted at least some in-person offerings in all 133 school divisions by March 15.

10 News was the first to tell you about the plan before he unveiled it last month.

Teachers across Virginia are getting COVID-19 vaccines in the hopes of getting more students back in the classroom. For 11 months now, each school system had a different approach to learning.

“I want everybody back in school too but we want it with the caveat we want them back safe,” said Zebedee Talley Jr., Martinsville City Schools superintendent, who decided to remain all virtual since last March. “I don’t want to be on the fence of waiting and trying to decide who I’ll let get sick. One person sick is too many people sick for me.”

Meanwhile, others like Salem City Schools have a hybrid approach. Salem has operated on the hybrid model since Aug. 31.

“I think we’ve found in Salem we could do in-person learning safely and well. However, Virginia is a wonderfully diverse state. We’ve got beaches, we’ve got mountains, we’ve got everything in between so to try to generalize from urban districts to rural districts to suburban and middle-size districts is very difficult to do,” said Dr. Alan Seibert, Salem City Schools superintendent.

The governor sent a letter to superintendents and school boards Friday, saying more than one-third of school divisions offer no in-person learning options — that’s half a million kids.

“This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult,” Northam said in the letter.

Virginia has seen a drop in the number of fully remote school divisions.

In September, the Virginia Department of Education reports that 68 divisions were all remote but by Jan. 26, that was down to 42.

The decision on how students can learn in the classroom is made considering factors such as staff, community spread and what local health departments have to say.

“I think it makes sense that local health departments have some discretion so they can tailor their recommendations to their area but it does add to the difficulty when one health district’s doing one thing and one health district’s doing another thing,” said Seibert.

VDOE partnered with VDH for the new plan including five steps to help guide school reopening decisions. It includes a matrix to recommend how many students come back and the priority for certain groups like early learners, students with disabilities and English learners.

“We wanted to be sure people were continuing to think about any way that particularly those learners who had been most disproportionately impacted got some in-person instruction even if it’s just the last quarter. Recognizing how absolutely critical that is in their academic and mental well-being,” said Holly Coy, assistant superintendent for VDOE during a Board of Education meeting.

“Our students have done very well,” said Talley. “Our last assessment revealed very little learning loss. In fact, we were basically where we were last year.”

Talley says Martinsville City Schools is planning to bring pre-k, kindergarten, English learners and special needs students back by March 8.

There’s a Virginia-wide group working on remediation and recovery and Dr. Lane says that will be the focus of the VDOE guidance heading into next school year.

We have a list of what local schools are doing with the new guidance to get kids back in the classroom here.

About the Author:

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.