The second quarter of the school year has begun, and last week an additional 134 students came back to in-person learning in Greene County Public Schools (GCPS) for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in March.
“We have an exciting day tomorrow,” said GCPS Assistant Superintendent Bryan Huber at the Nov. 11 school board meeting. “It is another first day of school for students in Greene County. We are welcoming back students across the division in grades K through 12 to in-person instruction ... which brings in all kinds of new opportunities for us with teachers in new classrooms and new spaces.”
With the largest influx in elementary students, just over 28% of the students in kindergarten through fifth grades are now learning virtually, down from 40% at the start of the school year. A total of 87 elementary students, 11 middle-schoolers and 36 high-school students started back in person on Friday, Nov. 13 (after schools were closed Thursday due to widespread flooding in the county).
“At the elementary schools, we are pretty much at capacity in all three levels in terms of staffing and space availability,” Huber said. “But, we were excited that we were able to honor 100% of every single request that was made by the deadline.”
With the strict social distancing measures required to offer in-person learning, administrators and staff at Nathanael Greene Primary (NGPS) and Elementary schools (NGES) and Ruckersville Elementary School (RES) have worked hard to find ways to fit in all the additional students.
At RES, 41 students switched their learning option; two switched to virtual and 39 switched to in-person learning.
“We switched a virtual third-grade teacher back to in-person and had to add a kindergarten class which is being taught by our instructional coach,” said RES Principal Donna Payne. “One of our fifth-grade classrooms moved to the band room at the middle school; we have a fourth-grade class that moved to the library. Transportation had to shift some bus routes to accommodate. Our teachers have been so open and flexible in doing whatever is needed to accommodate what is best for the students.”
At NGES, Principal Adam Midock collaborated with the primary school as well as the middle school to accommodate requests, as second-graders are housed at NGES and fifth grades are in the middle school this year due to space constraints. NGES saw 30 students switching, with only one moving from in-person to virtual.
“We examined the total number of students returning … and compared it to the available learning spaces within the buildings and to the capacities within each space,” Midock said. “In several grade levels we had to build a new classroom to accommodate the returning students.”
Two NGES teachers have transitioned from virtual to in-person instruction and classroom spaces were moved during a teacher workday earlier this month.
In the primary school, 31 requests (with only one moving to virtual) required two virtual teachers to come back to in-person instruction and teacher assignments for virtual students were adjusted accordingly.
“Collaboration between all three elementary schools was key, as we have some virtual students who are being shared between Nathanael Greene and Ruckersville,” said NGPS Principal Danielle Alicea. “Once we confirmed all requests … could be accommodated, we worked together as a team to communicate with parents, transportation and staff in adjusting schedules to ensure it was a smooth transition.”
With 28.7% of elementary students learning virtually and a steady 40% of middle and high school students in virtual classes, schools are continually adjusting to address issues with connectivity. Two months into the school year, 200 T-Mobile WiFi hotspots have thus far been distributed to parents to assist in distance learning and another 50 have been ordered to meet requests.
Huber said they have noticed some increased instances of students failing to perform up to normal expectations because of the adjusted school schedule this fall.
“What we’re noticing at the middle and high school level is students not being able to effectively manage their time when they’re not here,” he said. “When they’re here, they’re being successful; but in the days that they may not be here, some of our students are struggling to complete those activities and get those items turned in. I think everybody’s situation is different in what they’re experiencing during the pandemic and what they’re able to do; I think we also need to look at what our expectations are for the workload that we have students doing outside of school.”
Additional updates on the Return to Learn plan included an update on planning for the return to participation with the Virginia High School League for winter sports (see B3) and a proposed year-end bonus for staff due to some changes in the division’s financial situation.
“It seems like years ago, but our school board last February adopted an initial budget which included a 4% raise for our staff,” said GCPS Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh. “By the time we got to budget adoption last June, there were so many unknowns at that point we made some changes.”
With anticipated sales tax and lottery funding projected to be way down and the inability to procure additional funding from the Board of Supervisors, along with projected enrollment losses, the proposed raise was dropped from the budget along with several proposed new staff positions. Throughout the summer, the school board racked up significant costs due to COVID mitigations, cleaning equipment, hotspot distribution and more.
Finally, in early November the school system received $508,000 in Coronavirus Relief Funds (part of the CARES Act) with which to offset those costs in the operational budget.
“A priority for our board over the past several years has been our people—attracting and retaining the most highly qualified educators, leaders and support staff,” Whitmarsh said. “In alignment with our board’s priorities, I would like to make a proposal … that we provide a year-end one-time bonus for all active full-time employees. Further, I would like to propose a 2% pay increase for staff effective Jan. 1. We are able to do this because our financial picture has improved but also because we’re receiving the Coronavirus funds … we held back so much the first half of the year that we have the funds to do this.”
Midway board member Leah Paladino moved to accept the superintendent’s recommendation for a $1,500 year-end bonus and second half salary action. Todd Sansom (Vice Chair-Monroe) seconded. After a brief discussion, the resolution was passed unanimously.
“We have asked a lot of our staff this year,” said board Chair Sharon Mack. “There were some concerns of health and safety and people afraid to come in, but we’ve done it. They’ve delivered on what we’ve asked and done such an outstanding job this year and I am definitely in favor of providing extra compensation.”
It was also noted that during the ten weeks that school has been back in session, there have only been seven cases of COVID-19 among students and staff in the schools thus far. Last week, a representative from the Thomas Jefferson Health District toured the schools and reviewed all the COVID-19 mitigation strategies. He was impressed by the measures in place and plans to share them with neighboring counties who are still considering a return to in-person or blended learning moving forward.
The school board will meet on Dec. 9 in the performing arts center at William Monroe High School. The agenda will include a public hearing on next year’s budget.
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