As Roanoke County School Board members listened to more than two hours’ worth of details about Roanoke County Public Schools’ recommended reopening plan on Thursday, they all praised district officials for going above and beyond. But as members took turns discussing their opinions, it became unclear whether the board will approve the plan as-is at their meeting this week, or whether the district will need to stretch to meet the school board’s approval.

The recommended plan, unveiled Thursday night, involves daily in-person instruction for pre-K through second grade. Third through 12th grades will attend in-person twice a week, with remote learning on the other days. Superintendent Ken Nicely said that the plan can become less restrictive as conditions change. In their discussion, board members centered on the biggest detail: who receives daily instruction.

“I think that the plan that’s been laid out here tonight has laid out the case that we need to go back normal,” said Tim Greenway, who represents Vinton. “I don’t see how this educates our kids.”

Greenway requested that at a minimum, third through fifth grades also return to daily in-person instruction. He voiced major concerns for students falling behind, saying that it was clear online instruction didn’t work when schools closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year in March. He also acknowledged that district officials said too many students returning in-person could result in outbreaks, which could close schools again.

“It’s all political,” Greenway said at one point. “I don’t care which side you’re on. No matter what side you’re on. I just think it’s all partly political.”

That comment drew some criticism from Jason Moretz, who later said, “Science is not political.”

“Oh yes it is,” Greenway replied.

Moretz, who represents Windsor Hills, said it was still unclear how children are affected by COVID-19.

“So I mean, yeah, maybe it’s easier to have teachers and students return to school as normal. We don’t have parents upset with us, we don’t have to worry about child care,” he said. “However, the easiest choice isn’t always the best choice.”

Moretz voiced general support for sending all elementary students back in-person if there was a “safe” option.

During his presentation, Nicely explained the rationale behind why pre-K through second grade is slated for daily in-person instruction: It’s critical that the youngest students are in-person for reading development, and it will help families with child care, he said.

The district did look at sending the upper elementary grades to school daily, too, but Nicely said it wasn’t feasible to do while maintaining recommended 6-feet of physical distancing. Already, he said, cafeterias and other non-classrooms would need to be utilized. Staff considered non-school buildings, like churches, but Nicely said he wasn’t comfortable with the lack of safety and security in comparison to schools, and more staff would also be needed, both of which would cost money.

To send all elementary students back, board members discussed eschewing the 6-feet recommendation and instead space students at a smaller distance. Greenway said he didn’t want to “throw caution to the wind” but said in talking with his constituents, a majority of them seemed to want to return normally. Board members asked whether they could follow the guidelines and have elementary students return in-person.

Districts can legally deviate from health recommendations, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

They are just asked to give VDOE notice.

Nicely said the health department didn’t recommend varying from the social distance guidelines. They could send pre-K to fifth grade in-person and follow health guidelines, but he said it would mean having to look at non-school buildings or using middle or high school buildings and displacing those students.

Chairman Don Butzer, who represents the Catawba District, was blunt in his assessment: “I would never approve any plan that didn’t have the blessing of the health department.”

Butzer said he would support sending more students back to school if health officials signed off on the plan. He added that he doesn’t believe local experts are “political.”

Mike Wray, who represents Cave Spring, echoed much of what Greenway said. “I’d like to see … at least give us some information on pre-K through five,” he said.

David Linden, who represents the Hollins area, said families in his district were clear that they didn’t want to go through the same remote learning as the spring semester. Nicely said the spring semester’s remote instruction was not true online learning and that it would be very different in the fall.

“I heard earlier, ‘We need to put safety first.’ I’m a firm believer that we need to put education first,” Linden said.

He asked for Nicely to put a timeline on the plan so families would know when it would end, which Butzer agreed with. Linden also voiced strong support for returning to the classroom while also being cautious.

Linden added that Nicely’s educational experience trumped his and “I trust that we have hired the best leader that we could possibly have, and that your decisions are probably going to be better than mine.”

In the end, the board members all agreed they had a lot to consider.

“So, I guess July 2 will probably be the most important vote any one of you will ever make in your life when it comes to the school system and the risks,” Butzer said.

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