Transition Day at Madison Heights Elementary School 01

Tesha Kurt, of Madison Heights, hugs her daughter Elle, 4, as she leaves her kindergarten class at Madison Heights Elementary School in Amherst County, August 13, 2019.

Amherst County Public Schools officials expect the very earliest students can start a new school year in a vastly different world of public education amid the coronavirus pandemic is Aug. 26, provided the state has progressed to Phase Three of its plan to reopen all schools.

The Aug. 26 date is two weeks after the planned start of the new school year, which the Amherst County School Board agreed at its June 11 meeting was unrealistic with so much on educators’ plates in trying to phase students back into schools. The board stressed the tentative Aug. 26 date is subject to change and gives teachers and staff more flexibility in preparing for likely the most unusual school year in the county’s history.

Superintendent Rob Arnold said a task force of more than 70 members of the Amherst school community is focused on building the structure for a return to school plan after Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled a plan for opening schools in phases. The Amherst plan referred to as “roadmap to return” is slated to go before the board at its July 9 meeting.

The division held a virtual town hall June 4 that Arnold said included 400 participants who gave feedback and shared concerns with reopening schools, including child care, broadband access, serving needs of special education students and transportation.

“There wasn’t a consensus around what we should do,” Arnold said of the many views shared. “Many people would have given us their children that night and many are telling us they are not coming back until a vaccine is found. And we’re kind of in the middle trying to figure out how to accommodate all these parents and students.”

Arnold said three common points are driving the division’s path forward: the belief students should be in school as a place where their academic and emotional needs are met, safety as the No. 1 priority and state guidelines in regards to the pandemic that must be adhered to.

Social distancing and keeping students 6 feet apart in classrooms and on buses, screening children before entering schools and face coverings, which Arnold said is required for adults interacting within 6 feet of students and is not mandatory for students, is expected to occur.

“It will be different,” Arnold said. “I want to be very transparent about this. I don’t think there is a school division we’ve spoken to that has figured out how to do this and get students in school every day. ... Social distancing, I believe, is going to be the No. 1 factor in what schools are going to look like when we return.”

That will affect scheduling, since classroom sizes will change, and some distance learning at home also may be involved. The Amherst community will have a significant child care issue as a result, and Arnold said the division is reaching out to various organizations, churches, Amherst County’s department of social services and private daycare providers for help adjusting.

“This is a community-wide problem and we need our community organizations to work with us to provide options to parents,” Arnold said of child care needs. “We’re going to need that assistance.”

The major issue with distance learning is broadband access, a challenge the division is working to address through a partnership with a Texas-based company assessing the county’s technological assets with a goal of meeting all students’ internet needs by this fall, Arnold said.

The division’s broadband expansion initiative is planned to use federal stimulus money from the CARES Act.

“We need our community now more than ever because we need to help this community move forward,” Arnold said of the challenges ahead.

Arnold said a traditional 180-day school year is not expected to happen in the unusual school year that lies ahead.

“I know the question is when are we going to return? I can’t answer that. No one can answer that,” he said of the uncertainty.

The division is working on surveys for families and on online options for those who refuse to send their children back to school because of COVID-19 concerns, he said. Schools also have to provide face masks and hygiene products, among other measures.

The board is set to tackle the back-to-school plan during a July 20 retreat session.

“We don’t want a plan that is rushed and not good,” Arnold said in stressing the need to devote much time to it.

The board praised school officials’ responses to COVID-19 and gave their own thoughts.

“I’ll say right now, I don’t think the children should be required to wear face masks,” board member David Cassise said.

Cassise asked for the Amherst community’s patience for the upcoming school year and its many hurdles.

“This is something that nobody’s ever gone through,” he said. “Whether you agree with what’s going on or not, we’ll never be able to make everybody happy.”

“This is challenging times for everybody,” board member Christopher Terry said. “Nobody knows what the new normal will be.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, attended Thursday’s meeting and said he and other area legislators are working from a regional standpoint to reopen businesses and schools.

“This is our future, these are our kids,” Walker said. “They need to be back in school.”

Marcia Lawhorne, a Madison Heights, wrote in a letter read during the public comments section of the meeting that kids need social interaction and exercise, adding they are becoming depressed cooped up in their homes.

“If you cannot open the schools for all kids and all classes, then don’t bother to open,” Lawhorne said in the letter. “Parents cannot stay home to make sure their kids are doing schoolwork, nor should we have to.”

Lawhorne wrote students struggle enough with the normal five-day school week. “Taking that away will make it worse,” Lawhorne wrote.

Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said school officials “are in the dark with a big time flashlight” working to lead the community through many unknowns.

“It’s not a normal time for education,” Liggon said.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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