As fourth through 12th grade students prepare for expanded in-person learning at Roanoke County Public Schools later this month, a lack of available space crowds the minds of district administrators, while new guidance from the state offers reassurance of their reopening plans.
To satisfy 6-foot physical distancing limitations, some Roanoke County elementary schools are using gymnasiums as classroom space in order to accommodate kindergarten through third grade students who began attending in-person classes five days a week in late October, said superintendent Ken Nicely.
“All the elementary schools have had to look at their available space,” Nicely said during a news conference Friday. “At several of our schools, they’re needing to use the larger spaces. Other schools have figured out some ways to do that without using the gymnasiums.”
Preparations continue next week for Roanoke County Public Schools to more frequently bring students into physical classrooms.
Starting Jan. 25, fourth graders are returning to five-day in-person instruction, and some fifth through 12th graders are increasing in-school attendance to four days per week, a change from the mixed online and in-person schedule students have followed so far this academic year.
Nicely said the requirement to distance desks at 6-foot intervals is the biggest barrier to bringing in more students.
“In order to accommodate more students and also follow 6-foot distancing, we have two choices: either we can split students up into smaller groups, which means we need to have more staff in order to do that, or we can use our larger spaces,” Nicely said. “I really appreciate the innovation and problem-solving our staff has put in place to make this work for our kids.”
Virginia health and education officials announced new guidance Thursday for safely reopening the state’s schools, which Nicely said serves as reassurance that his school district is abiding by the best available practices.
“We’re grateful for the affirmation that the approach we’ve taken all year in Roanoke County Schools is the one that’s really working,” Nicely said. “It’s the one the governor, the Virginia Department of Health and the department of education are all affirming to say, ‘yeah, this is exactly what we need to do in order to get more students back in school.’”
The new guidance makes it clear that mitigation measures such as 6-foot distancing, wearing a mask and contact tracing must stay in place for now, Nicely said.
“We’re doing everything we can on our end, following the governor’s new announcement,” Nicely said. “As long as we’re doing those things, even with community measures and higher degrees of transmission, in working with our local health department, we can continue to maximize in-person attendance.”
Elementary, middle and high schools have worked hard to abide by those safety measures, Nicely said. As more students — from all of the fourth grade, to fifth through 12th graders in need of extra attention — prepare to physically attend school more days per week, those efforts will continue.
“We’ve given students in all our grades the opportunity to make that adjustment back to in-person learning, and we encourage that,” Nicely said. “That’s individual choice, but we’ve had many students and families deciding they’d like to come back in-person now that we are going five days a week in fourth grade.”
So far, about 25% of county students have opted to instead learn entirely online, Nicely said.
“We feel like with our new expanded plan starting Jan. 25, we’ve now maximized our available staff and space to be able to have as many students in-person as possible,” Nicely said.
The school district is eager to have conversations with health officials about how to safely resume full in-person learning for more students, especially once COVID-19 vaccination rates are higher, Nicely said.
“The other key piece of that I think the health department is going to consider in making those recommendations to us is getting that community spread down,” Nicely said. “Anything that members of the community can do to help us out with that, wearing face masks in public will certainly help with that.”