Superintendents from local school divisions discussed their plans for reopening schools in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and how local businesses can help make their plans reality — during Wednesday’s Business at Breakfast event hosted by the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.
Officials at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance moderated the online event, which featured panelists Robert Arnold, superintendent at Amherst County Public Schools; Annette Bennett, superintendent at Appomattox County Public Schools; Crystal Edwards, superintendent at Lynchburg City Schools; Robert Johnson, superintendent at Campbell County Public Schools; and Doug Schuch, superintendent at Bedford County Public Schools.
The event garnered 70 participants, including Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance members and members of the general public.
While each division is planning to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year, offering hybrid- learning options for students and a 100% virtual option — plans vary slightly. The problems they face in making the plans a reality are identical.
School officials said transportation, internet access and childcare remain key challenges local school divisions will have to address when it comes to reopening.
None of the divisions are planning for students to immediately return to school for full school days five days a week like they were before schools were closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Because students will not attend school for in-person instruction on a typical schedule, childcare is a major issue for some parents, leaders said.
Arnold said the division will depend on parents, the schools’ community and area employers to help make reopening plans successful. For employers, that means remaining flexible with parents’ work schedules where possible so they can stay home with their children when needed.
Arnold said Amherst County Public Schools will offer childcare to its staff members’ children.
“If we can’t do that, then we’re going to have a hard time getting all of our teachers back in the buildings,” Arnold said.
For other parents in the division, Arnold said the division is working to cultivate relationships with area daycares and childcare centers that might be able to help accommodate their needs despite the scheduling challenges.
Edwards said Lynchburg City Schools is working with community partners to provide off-site locations for childcare. The division’s current reopening plan has its Pre-K through fifth-grade students in school buildings two days a week and learning remotely the remaining days. These partnerships are intended to address both the need for childcare and internet access for virtual learning days.
“We recognize that not every family can pay for childcare, so we’re doing our best to make sure that … we offer free childcare where we can,” Edwards said.
LCS plans to have school staff at those off-site locations to provide childcare and assist with student learning, Edwards said.
Transportation has been an issue in Lynchburg City Schools since before the pandemic, Edwards said, and it’s more of an issue now. The same is true for the other divisions. In many cases, buses will be limited to one passenger to a seat, which, Edwards said, cuts the capacity of each bus by more than 50%.
Because the divisions are offering a 100% virtual option to families unable to or uncomfortable with sending their students back to school, there will be fewer students to transport.
Bennett, Schuch and Johnson said their most recent survey results show about 20% of the students in their respective divisions plan to enroll in the 100% virtual option. Arnold said that number in Amherst County Public Schools is around 18% of students. Edwards said LCS is awaiting results from a recent survey that will indicate how many students will choose the online option.
Still, because of bus capacity with social distancing requirements, buses in each division will have to make several trips around the division to pick up and drop off students at schools on staggered schedules.
To address internet access issues, Johnson said Campbell County Public Schools will place buses around the county that will provide WiFi to those who need it for remote learning days. Arnold said Amherst students will be able to download work to their Chromebooks or a flash drive during their “in school” days that they can complete on remote days.
Flexibility remains key, Johnson said, as these plans could change at a moment’s notice.
Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.