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Additional Roanoke County students could go back to classroom, but school board still doesn't agree on plan

Additional Roanoke County students could go back to classroom, but school board still doesn't agree on plan

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Younger Roanoke County students may be able to social distance at a smaller distance, allowing for the possibility of more students returning to daily in-person learning, according to Superintendent Ken Nicely. Roanoke County School Board members still haven’t come to a consensus on a return to school plan.

The school board met Wednesday for a work session to continue discussion about the district’s proposed return to school plan, which calls for daily classroom instruction for pre-K through second graders, twice-a-week classroom instruction for older students and the option for 100% remote learning.

Board members decided to hold an additional work session and delay its previously scheduled Thursday vote following criticism from the community and uncertainty about whether the plan had enough support from the board to be approved. They will hear from the public at their Thursday meeting.

Nicely said Wednesday that district officials “pushed the envelope” so all pre-K through second grade students can return daily. It’s possible more students will also be able to return, he said.

Nicely referenced guidelines released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which call for a physical return to school due to negative impacts from students being out of the classroom. Those guidelines are based on research suggesting that children are less likely to be symptomatic and may be less likely to spread COVID-19.

The guidelines suggest 3 feet “may approach the benefits” of 6 feet, especially if students wear a face covering and are asymptomatic.

Nicely said he discussed it with Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts. O’Dell told him “the jury is still out” on definitive evidence about transmission from children to adults, Nicely said. She also told him it would be reasonable to have shorter social distancing when there are extra mitigation strategies in place for younger students, who don’t cough as forcefully and therefore don’t spread germs as far.

“If we can go 3 to 4 feet with those younger kids, then we may be able to get the third graders in,” Nicely said.

But he said survey results will be important to determine how many students plan to attend in person. That number could allow for more grades to attend in person or make it more difficult. The survey will be published following Thursday’s meeting.

Some members, such as Tim Greenway, have voiced strong support for sending all elementary students to the classroom daily. Greenway said his opinion hadn’t changed after Wednesday’s news; he still wants fourth and fifth graders to attend daily in addition to third grade.

“If we’re not going to do it, then we need to adopt Dr. Nicely’s plan and move on,” Greenway told his colleagues. He apologized for “wasting time” if nothing was going to change.

“I feel that we can do a little bit more” while still following health guidelines, David Linden said.

Don Butzer, who is adamant the board only approve a plan that local health officials sign off on, resigned as chair at the start of the meeting. He will remain on the board but wishes to take a more active role in this discussion, he said. Mike Wray, previously the vice chair, was elected chair; Linden was elected vice chair.

Parents, teachers weigh in

The recommended plan has also drawn criticism from parents and teachers.

A group of Roanoke County parents and teachers have formed a committee called “Reopen Roanoke County Schools” to pressure the district to offer daily in-person instruction for all grades in addition to remote learning. Citing a low number of positive COVID-19 cases in Southwest Virginia in comparison to the rest of the state, the group supports an “opt in/opt out” approach, based on a model out of Columbia, Missouri.

Committee Co-chair Nicole Pardon said the growing group currently consists of about 300 county parents and teachers. The group mobilized locally after growing out of a larger Facebook group of Virginia parents and teachers lobbying for a normal return, “VA Back2School.”

Southwest Virginia has fewer positive COVID-19 cases than urban areas of Virginia, though the region has seen faster growth of positive COVID-19 cases toward the end of June, many linked to recent traveling. Pardon said her group acknowledges that case numbers will continue to climb but believes students can return to school safely with proper precautions.

Committee members believe it’s more harmful for students to remain out of the classroom due to increased learning loss and mental health issues, Pardon said, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines. Pardon said the group doesn’t believe in abandoning health and safety guidelines and want “full safety measures whenever possible.”

Roanoke County Education Association President Tim Summers previously said his union would support a more restrictive plan due to concerns over student and teacher safety. The RCEA, which represents around 500 Roanoke County educators, is also willing to back the current recommended plan. “Any changes to the plan to make it more relaxed, we would vehemently oppose,” Summers said.

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