Establishing a ‘new normal’ in K-12 schools

A VCU forum highlights the state’s guidance to reopening and how Petersburg school leaders are handling challenges for the upcoming academic year.

A student views a video lesson being taught by an instructor on a laptop computer.
Virginia's K-12 school divisions are facing unique challenges this fall, as they reopen with face-to-face, hybrid and virtual instruction. (Getty Images)

As the pandemic continues into the fall, Virginia’s K-12 school divisions are facing choices about their reopening plans and navigating a public health crisis that is both universal and also unique depending where you live.

“After entering phase three, COVID cases started to spike and we began to see a more cautious approach by our school divisions,” said James F. Lane, Ed.D., Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction. “Most of our suburban, larger school and urban districts are going to a predominately virtual approach, even with the state allowing more in-person instruction, while smaller and rural are having an in-person option.”

Speaking last week at a virtual forum hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and School of Education, Lane, who leads the Virginia Department of Education, and Maria Pitre-Martin, Ph.D., Petersburg superintendent of schools, outlined the challenges K-12 school divisions are facing as they enter the beginning of a new school year. The event, part of the Wilder School’s Alumni Lunch and Learn Series, was moderated by Andrew Daire, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Education.

“I do believe that what’s most important in the work that we do at the School of Education is that we are responsive to the needs of the commonwealth of Virginia and our surrounding school divisions,” Daire said. “I am really excited to have had the opportunity to partner with both the Virginia Department of Education and Petersburg city public schools.”

Lane said the Virginia Department of Education is supporting school divisions for returning to instruction in the fall through face-to-face, hybrid and virtual models.

“We are all about maximizing student potential. It’s no longer about whether students are meeting an arbitrary benchmark at any point in time, but it’s about if we are taking them from where they are to the maximum point of where they could be,” Lane said. “The shift is really important in the context of the pandemic because it also affects the way that we are approaching the needs that our students have whether it’s in person or in a virtual setting.”

What’s most important in the work that we do at the School of Education is that we are responsive to the needs of the commonwealth of Virginia and our surrounding school divisions.

The Department of Education school reopening plans were designed to:

  •  Align with the “Forward Virginia” blueprint and phases set by Gov. Ralph Northam
  •  Scale-up opportunities for in-person instruction
  •  Address the health, social, emotional and physical well-being of students and staff
  •  Prioritize the needs of learners who are most vulnerable, for whom in-person instruction is most essential

Pitre-Martin, who will speak at the VCU School of Education’s convocation event on Aug. 28, spoke of the ways Petersburg public schools has monitored the COVID-19 pandemic through intentional planning and data to provide support to students and families while establishing a “new normal” for the 2020-21 school year.

“The first thing we had to do was acknowledge what was taking place in our community in relationship to COVID-19, then we needed to measure each leg of the journey, focus on what our community needed and move forward and take action,” Pitre-Martin said. “We relied heavily on the guidance documents from [the Department of Education] as well as the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in partnership with the Department of Health in making our decisions.”

The Petersburg School Board voted on July 22 to go 100% virtual. The division is prepared to return to classes Sept 8.

Equity issues and community concerns

Lane said the pandemic is highlighting long-standing equity issues within the state and its communities. For example, some school divisions had virtual learning in place at the early stages of the pandemic, while others had nothing at all.

Like many school divisions, Petersburg focused on technology needs and broadband accessibility for students.

“Every community has very different needs. For us, we needed to focus our CARES Act funding, which was about $2.5 million, on technology and support to our families to be able to be virtual,” Pitre-Martin said.

Petersburg schools distributed 200 Wi-Fi hotspots to student homes and intends to make another 200 available in the near future, she said. More than 2,000 Chromebooks have been distributed, which covers about half of the current student count.

“We also knew a lot of our families do not use technology in the home, so we’ve established a help desk on how to use the hotspots, Chromebooks and overall technology,” Pitre-Martin said.

Access to food and the need to continue providing meals to students throughout the school year was an additional concern.

“We will continue to provide breakfast and lunch to our students and will be making community food distribution within the community five days a week,” she said.

The first thing we had to do was acknowledge what was taking place in our community in relationship to COVID-19, then we needed to measure each leg of the journey, focus on what our community needed and move forward and take action.

The social and emotional well-being of not only the families dealing with job losses and financial hardships, but also school faculty and staff coping with stressful situations was yet another area of focus in the Petersburg reopening plan.

“We established ‘wellness Wednesdays’ for staff where they could check in with support staff. We learned that staff wanted those to be accessible during the school year as well,” Pitre-Martin said.

Many school divisions across Virginia have opted for virtual or hybrid reopening, but for those that are going in-person, one of the most voiced concerns is, “what happens if a student or group of students have COVID-19?”

“Every situation is … different,” Lane said. “The [Department of Education] wants school divisions to look at each situation in context and work with their local health departments to work through them with a case-by-case approach. Local health departments are asked to put in place protocols and make recommendations to the school division as needed.”

View the full virtual event and Q&A on the Wilder School’s YouTube page. The school’s next Alumni Lunch and Learn on Sept. 16 at noon will feature Stephen Moret, Ed.D., president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

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