LCPS springs forward with learning choices

By Laura Longley

Remember last March 13, the day the schools closed in Loudoun County? Who would have thought nearly a year would pass before Loudoun’s public school students could be back in a classroom—even if only two days a week, sitting six feet apart, and wearing masks?

That’s a smile behind the mask. A student arrives at Creighton’s Corner Elementary, clearly happy to be back at school.

This March, it’s a different story. We’re springing forward, not only by the clock but also by reopening Loudoun County’s public schools for hybrid learning. Elementary school students whose parents elected hybrid learning for second semester cheered their return to the classroom on Feb. 16. For parents of middle and high school students, their back-to-school celebrations kicked off on March 3. 

The only thing that could make them happier is a full week of school. But even two days have been a godsend. As one Emerick Elementary School parent put it, “The joy is back on my children’s faces.”

Mixed reviews for LCPS decision-making

Getting to this point, however, has been far from easy. Ask parents such as Brandon Michon who throughout the year stepped up to the microphone at biweekly school board meetings, pleading with the members to “figure it out.” 

Many of these parents continue to feel that the school board still has a long way to go and that the decision to go to even two days a week resulted only from changes in the guidelines of the state of Virginia and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with the blessing of Dr. David Goodfriend, Loudoun County Health Director. 

In February, after reviewing local data, as well as data from school systems throughout the country, he reported to the school board that schools following mitigation strategies, including distancing of six feet and wearing masks, have not seen significant spread of the coronavirus within buildings. “It’s just as safe, if not safer, having students and faculty in the schools as it is having them in the community, outside their homes.”

Many parents elected remote-only schooling for their children for second semester. According to a Blue Ridge Middle School father, “We’re not doing the hybrid but instead finishing the year via distance. It has worked well for us, and there has been way too much uncertainty with LCPS planning and operations to have trusted them back in January when we had to decide for second semester. Everyone’s situation is different, and I don’t envy anyone in the planning process.”

The mother of a Loudoun Valley High School sophomore and Blue Ridge Middle School seventh grader faced a tough decision but ultimately made the choice based on what seemed best for each child: The Valley student will continue remote learning, while the son at Blue Ridge will go to hybrid. The mother’s views are tempered, however. “It’s nice to see Loudoun County finally making efforts to get the kids back to school. But I’m still very disappointed about how long it has taken considering many neighboring counties have been in person for months.” She cites Clarke and Frederick counties and the city of Winchester. “Loudoun County does not seem to have any clear reasoning for taking so long to get the kids back.”

She added, “The other disappointing aspects, which I don’t think a lot of people realize, is the kids will still be learning from their Chromebooks, just in the classroom. This is called ‘concurrent.’ They still won’t get the in-person, teacher-to-student, face-to-face benefit of traditional school.”

Changes in guidelines

Loudoun County Public Schools’ steps forward to hybrid learning are largely the result of changes in guidelines at the federal and state levels. Enhanced mitigation strategies and adherence to them are making a significant difference in school safety and, if faithfully followed, may lead to an increase in classroom days, perhaps as many as four days a week later this spring.

For students engaged in sports and activities of all public school organizations, there’s more good news. Activities held in indoor venues now can welcome as many as 250 people or 30 percent of those allowed by the certificate of occupancy. Outdoor events can have up to 1,000 attendees or 30 percent of occupancy, whichever is less. Masks and distancing of 10 feet for non-family members are required.

Loudoun’s mitigation strategies 

Parents or guardians receive a daily medical questionnaire survey, and must fill it out and return it promptly. No one can enter a school building if they have entered “yes” to any of the screening questions.  

Everyone must wear a mask and observe six feet of separation from others. That requirement extends beyond the classroom to hallways, cafeterias, and other communal spaces. Frequent and proper handwashing is also a key protocol. 

To monitor the temperatures of students, staff at each school check students upon arrival. LCPS also has installed thermal cameras at the most-used entrance to each school. These cameras can scan up to 45 individuals per second, and are set to identify any person with a temperature at or exceeding 100.4 degrees. 

Quarantine is a critical component in the school district’s commitment to comply with CDC, state, and local guidelines. To prevent COVID-19 transmission, any students or staff members who have been in close contact with a person diagnosed with coronavirus is expected to comply with quarantine guidelines. 

Vaccinations for teachers and school staff are not part of the mitigation equation. As LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler wrote to parents, “I want to stress that being vaccinated is not a prerequisite for student and staff taking part in hybrid learning.”

Concerns going forward

Parents who prefer to have their children maintain 100 percent distance learning will continue with that program through the end of the year—but many of them continue to have concerns about its implementation: Why aren’t the computer cameras required to be on? Why have there been no efforts to curb or address widespread cheating among those at home? What are the definitive plans for next year? 

Clearly, the Loudoun County parents’ and students’ experiences of the past year—and for the foreseeable future—will inform thinking about teaching, learning, and school administration for years to come. For now, though, the big question for everyone is, What’s next?

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