IW schools considering return to five day week

Published 7:01 pm Friday, November 27, 2020

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Once officials have implemented all possible mitigations and if the COVID-19 health situation doesn’t get significantly worse, Isle of Wight County’s pre-K through third-grade students could possibly return for in-person school five days a week on or about Dec. 7.

Grades four and five might return after winter break, and middle and high school could go back five days a week possibly in the second semester. The division also plans to ask parents on or about Nov. 30 to decide if they’d like their virtual students to return to in-person, and they’ll need to make a decision by Dec. 4.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton also said at the school board’s Nov. 18 meeting that student health information related to COVID-19 is now available on the school system’s website. Over the last four weeks, from Oct. 18 through Nov. 14, the division reported that four students tested positive for COVID-19 and 45 were quarantined. During the same time frame, three staff tested positive and nine were quarantined.

Those numbers, Thornton said, are evidence that the mitigations are working to control the spread of coronavirus within the school system. However, Thornton warned if the numbers go the wrong way, individual classrooms, schools or the entire division may need to shut down again.

As they have done at nearly every public meeting since the start of the pandemic, the superintendent, board members and school staff shared examples of success, resilience and some frustrations as they try to meet the needs and expectations of students, teachers and parents.

Susan Goetz, a division-wide administrator who oversees the school principals and coordinates curriculum and instruction, told the board that overall school enrollment is down with the exception of Smithfield Middle, Smithfield High and Windsor High, which have seen increased enrollment from 2019.

Overall, Isle of Wight schools had 5,324 students in September, which is 182 fewer students than September 2019, when 5,506 were enrolled. Goetz also noted a “really dramatic drop in kindergarten” enrollment compared to the past five years.

However, it’s possible the 2021-2022 kindergarten class will be bigger than ever, which in turn, will result in a larger than average cohort of students over the next decade. Goetz also said more parents have indicated they are homeschooling this year, 420 students as of last month, versus 253 last year. She also provided the board and the public a school-level breakdown of how many students were attending in person versus virtually.

In response to parents who addressed the board at the start of the meeting about class scheduling concerns, Thornton and Goetz acknowledged that with so many issues to balance, it’s been difficult to maintain consistent scheduling, and sometimes notifications to parents about changes fall through the cracks.

Board member Vicky Hulick, who has three children who attend Isle of Wight Schools, asked if school leaders were monitoring how virtual students are affected when schedules change.

Hulick acknowledged that school leaders work hard to create a consistent, accommodating class schedule, but from a parent’s perspective, “when I’m sitting there and I’m looking at ‘Well, they just moved her Zoom from 1 o’clock to now 3 o’clock’ [and] she’s got her athletic stuff at 3:30. Now we have to Zoom in the car on the way to her activity. I know I’m not the only parent who has that issue.”

More changes are inevitable, Goetz said, as school leaders continually adjust and reassign staff to adjust to ever-changing student needs. Compounding the scheduling issues, Goetz added is that the division has lost about 21 instructional assistants; about 15 of those who left worked in special education. She said the division is looking to immediately hire about 10 special education instructional assistants to fill that gap.

In the new normal, Thornton acknowledged that they don’t have an answer for every situation. “There are so many things happening every single day that are changing the dynamics. It’s not easy,” he said.

Thornton also praised and thanked the division’s teachers and staff for their ongoing hard work. To demonstrate that appreciation in a tangible way, Thornton said he plans to ask the board to reinstate last year’s teacher pay scale, which will give teachers an average 2% pay increase starting in February. The superintendent also wants to reinstate a 2% pay raise for all employees, also effective in February if the board approves the move.

“Our employees have come to work, they have served our children and served our citizens and I want to pay them this money,” Thornton said. “We feel strongly that we’ll be able to do this and I’ll confirm that next month and ask you to approve that request for our staff.”

Also Nov. 18, the board unanimously approved its latest capital improvement plan, which includes renovations to Smithfield High’s fine arts and track and field facilities. Thornton also told the board that the division has hired a coordinator of equity and inclusion. They expect them to start in early 2021.

Virtual versus classroom

Isle of Wight Public Schools recently provided a breakdown of how many students are in virtual versus in-person learning.

  • Carrollton Elementary: 317 in person, 272 virtual
  • Carrsville Elementary: 162 in person, 83 virtual
  • Hardy Elementary: 231 in person, 242 virtual
  • Windsor Elementary: 351 in person, 178 virtual
  • Westside Elementary: 331 in person, 348 virtual
  • Georgie Tyler Middle: 235 in person, 165 virtual
  • Smithfield Middle: 302 in person, 332 virtual
  • Windsor High: 338 in person, 171 virtual
  • Smithfield High: 754 in person, 559 virtual