Dr. Shannon Grimsley
Rappahannock County Public Schools
Dr. Shannon Grimsley, Cheerleader in Chief (Superintendent)
Reopening schools is a Monumental Effort by All
When schools in Virginia were abruptly closed on March 13, 2020 by Governor Northam, school superintendents were scrambling to prepare for what initially looked to be a temporary, two-week closure. Although impossible to anticipate the extent of the monumental challenge ahead, Rappahannock County seized the opportunity to double down efforts to not only continue learning, but also continue to meet student needs by extending outreach into the home, working together to be able to provide some sense of stability for families in the community.
Rappahannock County is a small, rural division with a very tight-knit community. The pathway to reopening truly did take an all-hands-on-deck approach in order to consider all the facets of a solid plan. In June 2020, RCPS launched 9 COVID task-forces to examine each of these important components: Health & Safety Mitigation Strategies, Social Emotional Supports for Students, Space Utilization and Scheduling for Instruction, Transportation and Bus Routing, Meals and Feeding Programs, Connectivity and Remote Learning Resources, Instructional Delivery and Staff Development, Human Resources and Policy Implications, and Athletics & Activities. These teams each were led by RCPS staff, and included teachers, support staff, and parents from each level to best capture potential barriers to success as well as develop key strategies to build into a safe reopening plan for all students and staff.
The result was a return to school on August 24, 2020, on a hybrid, asynchronous blended model with all students K-12 attending at least two days per week, along with an option for parents to choose complete remote learning. RCPS does hope to move toward a 4-day in-person model in January 2021. All students with special needs and English learners were automatically granted 4-day in-person instruction, while an application process was also utilized to allow parents to apply for 4-day instruction for other at-risk factors (economic hardship, childcare hardship, limited internet access, etc.) The RCPS Reopening Plan was very well received and adopted unanimously for implementation.
However, even the best-laid plans have unforeseen challenges. The costs associated with providing teachers and staff the level of safety equipment, PPE, and physical barriers that would help them feel safe at work was very significant. Additionally, providing all students the necessary technology and devices to be successful was also costly. Luckily, the Rappahannock County Supervisors worked collaboratively with RCPS to combine county and school CARES Act funding in order to support the school reopening plan.
The digital divide is of course at the top of the list as a barrier to learning at this time. Others include family structure, economic status, level of trauma, substance abuse, isolation, anxiety and depression. After our first 9 weeks of having been open on a hybrid model, students learning remotely are struggling to complete work and maintain healthy work habits. This has forced staff to think outside of the box to revamp grading practices to recognize the unique and unprecedented situation in which our families now find themselves. Being trauma-informed in policy and practice has never been more important right now, and RCPS is working hard to build in social emotional supports for all students and staff to meet this challenge.
Finally, reopening requires careful planning for how to effectively respond to positive COVID cases. Although the knee jerk reaction may be to close everything down, schools must work collaboratively with department of health officials to communicate clear metrics for what would constitute an actual school closure versus individual quarantines. In 9 weeks, Rappahannock has had only two positive cases, but schools were not closed either time due to protocols preventing high risk of transmission. By emphasizing smaller class sizes, distancing, proper hygiene techniques, sanitization practices, and proper mask wearing, schools can certainly keep transmission rates extremely low.
However, government officials must understand that this cannot occur without substantial financial support from the locality, state, and federal, as regular allocations fall far short in providing schools what they need to reopen. Rappahannock County Public Schools was extremely honored to welcome Assistant Secretary Brogan to our district to discuss successes and challenges regarding reopening schools. We hope to continue the conversation about all this experience has taught us.