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IW, Poquoson only Hampton Roads school divisions planning to reopen

By Stephen Faleski
and Nate Delesline III

Half of Virginia’s 132 school divisions have decided to offer some form of distance learning rather than reopen schools, according to an interactive online map the Virginia Department of Education launched on Aug. 19.

Isle of Wight County and Poquoson are the only two public school divisions in the Hampton Roads area to offer the option of in-person instruction for students. Both divisions plan to offer in-person instruction for grades Pre K-3 two days per week on an alternating schedule, so that only half of the students are present in the same building on any given day.

Isle of Wight also plans to offer in-person instruction via the two-day-per-week alternating schedule to high school students enrolled in career and technical education programs. Fully virtual instruction is available in both communities for parents who prefer to keep their children home for the entirety of the first semester.

As of the end of last week, the families of 658 Isle of Wight students chose in-person learning and the families of 587 chose fully virtual learning, according to division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs. An additional 148 eligible students’ families had not yet made a choice, so leaders at the school level are reaching out to families. Isle of Wight’s deadline for parents to choose in-person or virtual instruction was 11:59 p.m. Aug. 13.

“If we are unable to reach the families, their child will be placed in the in-person continuum,” Briggs said in an email. “For PreK-3, that will be in person learning on the hybrid schedule for the first nine weeks. For grades 4-12, the student will be on the temporary remote schedule with the hope that they can return to the classroom on a hybrid schedule for the second nine weeks.” Overall, 5,378 public school students were registered in Isle of Wight for the 2020-2021 school year, which starts Sept. 8.

Of the school divisions across the state opting for some type of reopening, most plan to offer a hybrid schedule where students in certain grades attend in-person classes on some days and virtual classes on others. Only nine divisions, mostly in the western areas of the state, are planning a near return to normal four to five days a week.

As of Aug. 24, Isle of Wight had 485 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That amounts to 1.3% of the county’s approximately 37,000 residents. Poquoson, by comparison, had 54 cases as of Aug. 24, which represents 0.45% of that city’s approximately 12,000 residents.

Though Isle of Wight is bucking the trend of Hampton Roads school divisions staying virtual this fall, Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton defended his recommendation to resume in-person instruction during a special called School Board meeting on Aug. 3. At that meeting, the board rescinded its earlier vote on July 30 to offer in-person instruction for all elementary and middle school students, and adopted the PreK-3 plan.

That plan, he said, is in accordance with state guidelines for Phase II of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening plan. “We are in Phase III,” Thornton said. “A total virtual setting for all students is Phase I. The state is not in Phase I.”

“I do know as an educator, another important metric is the mental well-being of our children and the tremendous gaps that this shutdown is creating for all children, but especially for at-risk learners, our PreK through third graders, who are learning the foundations of reading and math, and our special needs students,” Thornton said. “I think it is clear what will happen when we put children back in school, whether that is on Sept. 8 or nine weeks later. Data is clear, the more you put individuals together, some students will get sick and some staff will get sick. What we don’t know yet is how the mitigations and physical distancing will work in a school setting.”