Back to school? Work underway at OES

Work is underway at Orange Elementary School to connecting the kindergarten building to the main building. 

What will the first day of school look like on August 10? Will students be wearing masks, socially distancing on school buses, possibly taking some of their classes online? Or will they all stay home, log on and return to the virtual classrooms that provided a compromise solution in the final months of the 2019-2020 year?

These are questions without answers during the ongoing pandemic, and Dr. Cecil Snead, Orange County’s superintendent of schools, has been blunt with the school board about that. Wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance from school board members, he made it clear that preparation is essential and so is flexibility.

“We have to be prepared for everything. We don’t have the luxury of planning one way. We have to plan three, four, five different ways, so whatever happens, we can move. And staff has been excellent at that,” Snead said during the June 1 board meeting.

Since then, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Education have provided guidelines so schools across the state can get ready for a new school year fast approaching.

In a blog post on the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) website, Snead noted that state guidelines will require social distancing on buses and in K-12 classrooms. Schools must also minimize contact between groups of students and offer virtual learning as well as in-person instruction.

It’s a tall order.

As Snead wrote, the new protocols “can only be accomplished through alternative schedules that could include alternating days, split days or alternating weeks. While we are afforded such guidance [from the state], please remember that implementation plans rely on logistical considerations that are different from school division to school division.”

In advance of the governor’s announcement, Snead and his staff already were making plans. During the June 1 meeting, he told the board that OCPS students would continue using school-issued laptops for assignments, no matter whether they are doing the work in class or at home.

The idea is to keep students focused on their studies, even if the pandemic raises its gargoyle head and sends them all home again.

“Just because time and space are disrupted,” Snead said, “it doesn’t mean the learning has to be disrupted.”

Or at least it doesn’t mean that anymore. Recalling the school division’s massive effort to continue educating students, Snead said OCPS “garnered a lot of attention because we reached out to 5,000 families or thereabouts and delivered instruction in some shape or fashion.”

In April, Orange County provided Chromebooks to students who didn’t have computers at home. The schools also provided USB drives to those who needed to do their assignments offline because they lacked reliable internet access.

In a forceful speech to the board, Snead did not shy away from one uncomfortable possibility if the school buildings actually open on day one: There’s no way of predicting how many staff members and students will show up.

Imagining how it might play out, he said administrators may look around and ask, “Where are the kids? Where is the workforce?”

Snead continued, “That’s not negative thinking; that’s reality. The workforce availability is a little concerning. I’m not sure that just because we’ve reopened, everybody’s going to want to come back.”

In other news, he told the board that teachers and other staff members will not receive step increases in the coming year. This development comes on top of an earlier announcement that OCPS has enacted a hiring freeze.

Board chair Sherrie Page said she was “saddened” that the school division couldn’t provide raises to teachers in the coming year—a goal that seemed well within reach back in January.

OCPS also has eliminated raises from its proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2021. The change means that the schools are asking the county for about $1.5 million less than previously announced. The current operating budget is approximately $60 million.

“We’re going to be fine, budget-wise. At least we think we are,” Snead said.

Following up by email, Snead commented, “We believe that trying to keep our people employed outweighs taking a chance with step increases that increase our budget, which could ultimately force us to find measures to make cuts due to revenue shortages.”

As for state revenue shortages, he said, “We don’t have knowledge of revenue shortages beyond sales tax revenues and lottery revenues.”

Further, Snead told the board that Dr. Nora Coleman, OCPS coordinator of special education, has developed a plan called “OC Cares” to provide emotional and social support for students in the coming school year. He noted that the schools are “responsible for our students, whether or not they’re with us” in the buildings and said a staff task force has been created to help students with “social-emotional learning” as part of the OC Cares brand.

Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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