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Questions about safety, virtual education addressed during Roanoke schools' virtual town hall

Questions about safety, virtual education addressed during Roanoke schools' virtual town hall

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Verletta White

Superintendent Verletta White provides an introduction during Thursday’s virtual “town hall” meeting with Roanoke City Public Schools families.

Questions about health and safety and virtual learning dominated Thursday’s online town hall about Roanoke City Public Schools’ plan to reopen schools Aug. 31.

“The purpose of this town hall tonight, it’s not to sell you on anything,” Superintendent Verletta White said. “This is just to provide you with the information that you need so that you can make the best choices for your families and for your loved ones.”

School officials answered nearly 40 questions during the 90-minute virtual event.

Chief of Security Chris Perkins said students may be sent to another school in some cases where 6 feet of physical distancing can’t be maintained. He said there are many variables to consider, and the district is working with building architects to look at capacity and traffic flow within those schools.

Perkins said the decision also will involve looking at nearby schools’ capacity and transportation availability in conjunction with administrators.

“We’re not going to put our students in a position where we’re overcrowded, not during this pandemic,” he said.

The district’s proposal involves sending students to the classroom four full days per week, Mondays through Thursdays. A fully virtual option also will be available.

The plan hinges on at least 30% of students choosing the remote option, leaving parents wondering how the plan may change if that doesn’t happen. Although that threshold was met in the district’s initial survey, only 60% of the district’s enrollment completed the survey, so the figure could significantly change as the district collects formal responses.

Once the semester starts, students may switch from in-person to virtual instruction at any point. But students who start out virtually will need to commit for at least one quarter because going beyond the 70% capacity limit will “jeopardize the social distancing,” White said.

Perkins said the district plans to buy some 60 hand washing stations to place in schools. Students may bring their own hand sanitizer and masks, though Perkins also said those items will be provided.

Asked about whether the district will be notified if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, Perkins said students and staff will complete daily health screenings that ask whether the person tested positive or came in contact with someone who tested positive.

“If the individual was not in the building and in school ... [the Virginia Department of Health] may not alert us,” said Executive Director for Student Services Timothy Hahn. “So it really depends on the situation. However, we do have a screening that would hopefully catch any situation or any individual that would have symptoms.”

The district will notify families if staff discovers someone tested positive, Perkins said. He explained the district will work with the health department to do contact tracing. That could result in a single classroom closure or closure of a larger area, such as an entire hallway of classrooms.

Students who are in a classroom that closes for a period of time will receive instruction online, said Executive Director for School Improvement Julie Drewry. She explained that the virtual and in-person components will both be on the same pacing calendar, meaning that students can toggle between the two without missing any instruction.

The 100% remote option, a “virtual academy” hosted on the learning management system Canvas, will involve primarily asynchronous instruction, Drewry said. That means there will not be live instruction. Drewry explained this was decided because of students’ experiences when schools transitioned to online midway through the spring semester. Some students couldn’t log into the virtual classroom at a designated time due to connectivity issues, child care and other reasons, Drewry said.

Executive Director for K-5 Instruction Greg Johnston said there is technology that will allow, for example, a younger student to read a book and receive feedback from a teacher. There also will be office hours and opportunities to talk with a teacher, Drewry said.

“I think that it’s going to be a lot better than that emergency situation; it’s going to be more consistent,” Johnston said.

Students who utilize special education services will have their needs assessed on a case-by-case basis, said Executive Director for Special Education Hayley Poland. She explained that individualized education plans will be amended prior to the start of the year to reflect changes agreed upon by district staff and parents.

White said the district was still considering all options before making a final decision and was monitoring the COVID-19 case numbers in partnership with officials from the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.

“Right now we know that some of the cases are increasing,” White acknowledged.

Next steps include receiving formal intent form responses from families, who can change their choice of in-person or 100% virtual until Tuesday, White said. She said staff also will provide requests to the district. Once more data is received and any changes are made, White said the school board will vote on the final proposal.

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