Orange County Public Schools are moving ahead with their plan to reopen all schools five days a week for the 2021-2022 academic year starting on August 10. The return to a normal schedule comes after a year that evolved from students attending classes in-person just one or two days a week last August to a four-day, in-person schedule by the end of the school year.
During the 2020-21 year, teachers conducted temperature checks on students, cleaning protocols for buses and facilities were enhanced substantially and all school staff and visitors were screened before entry.
Sherrie Page, chair of the school board who represents District 2, said that certain COVID-19 precautions will stay in place going into the new year, particularly the ones based around personal preference.
“We won’t stop anyone, whether it’s a child or a teacher, from wearing a mask if they don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “I have a feeling that we will keep up the cleaning practices that we have been following. It may not be to the extent that it has been [during the pandemic]. Some of that we already had to do anyway.”
Although, the school board, administration and staff expressed confidence in the decision to follow the traditional weekly schedule for the foreseeable future, the thought of what do if COVID surges again in the fall remains on their minds.
“Now that we are moving into July, we’ll have discussions about what [a backup plan] might look like,” Page said. “The Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control could ask for a mitigation plan before the school year begins. To my knowledge, those conversations have not taken place yet.”
Page pointed out that the school district is acutely aware of the risk of an outbreak and the ever-changing face of a virus that has hung over the country like a black cloud for more than a year.
“Most of our teachers have been vaccinated, but at the elementary school where they are 12 and under, those students haven’t been given their vaccine,” she said. “You could go into a school year and be seven or 10 days in and have a whole class of kids [get sick]. I hope that doesn’t happen. Yet, with this new variant out there, we don’t know if they are more susceptible to that.”
The variant mentioned by Page is the Delta variant identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May. According to the WHO, this specific mutation of the COVID-19 virus was first discovered in India last year and is likely responsible for the crushing wave of cases and deaths that has afflicted the country recently.
Doug Arnold, supervisor for the schools’ department of facilities and maintenance, said that the custodial staff had already heightened their sanitization measures at the beginning of the last school year. He sees those practices sticking around, partly due to how they reduce general illnesses among students and teachers in addition to preventing the spread of COVID.
“I would put a very big asterisk on the topic of sanitization,” he said. “If cases begin to pick up again in the fall we will absolutely bring back measures like temperature checks, masking, etc. I can say definitively that if the percentages rise then we’ll return to some of the protocols.”
The staggered bus schedule is another major adjustment that will carry forward to the new school year. Transportation director Justin Sarver explained that the shift was fueled by more than COVID.
“The buses will run on roughly the same schedule that they did during the last part of the 2020-21 school year once students returned to four-day in-person learning,” he said.
The instructional day at the middle and high school levels will begin at 7:25 a.m. and end at 2:25 and 2:31 p.m., respectively. Elementary and primary level classes will start at 9:05 or 9:15 a.m. and conclude at 3:43 or 3:53 p.m.
“The first tier of the routing structure will be our middle and high school students,” Sarver said. “Once these students have been picked up and discharged at school, the bus driver will then begin their second-tier route which services our elementary schools. In the afternoon, the driver will begin by picking up the tier-one students and then will return to their tier-two school to begin their second route. The tiered bell schedule allowed us to overcome a significant bus driver shortage while also allowing us to restructure the bus driver salary scales from a mileage-based system to an hourly system that is very competitive with neighboring school districts.”
Due to students being in close proximity for extended periods of time, Sarver said that COVID precautions will remain in place on buses and other forms of transportation to and from school buildings.
“At this time, we are still operating under the assumption that students and staff will be required to wear masks on board our buses,” he said. “We have purchased sanitizing sprayers for each of our drivers to help increase the efficiency of the sanitizing process, and we are planning to continue these protocols until regulations and recommendations change.
Sarver said that the transportation department is prepared for all possibilities when it comes to protecting students and keeping things running smoothly.
“In the event the division receives a recommendation to alter our schedules due to an increase in cases, we would respond much in the same way we have as we progressed through the 2020-21 school year,” he said. “We relied on data from our health department, Virginia Department of Education, and our families to guide our decisions. We have upgraded our routing software, and we now have the capability to build routes using variable scenarios such as reduced seating capacity on buses, reduced numbers of buses, and other variables that may change in the event of a spike. While I hope we do not have to, we are in a position to respond quickly if the need arises.”
Possibly the most critical change going into the coming school year will be the option for county students to continue to take all of their classes online through a program dubbed Virtual OC.
At the beginning of the last school year, approximately 44% of students chose the Virtual OC platform.
“Anywhere between 70 to 80 students in the county are waiting to be approved to learn online [next year],” Page said. “But there will be a vetting process because as we found out this past year a large group of kids did very well with virtual learning. They thrived. We want to be able to support those kids who did grow in that environment.”
She said school administrators have discussed designating dedicated virtual teachers, but no action has been taken as of yet.