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Richmond Considers Staggered Classroom Schedules

Front edifice of Carver Elementary
Richmond Public Schools are looking to adopt a staggered schedule this fall to help limit the spread of coronavirus. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond’s public school system is considering several scenarios for reopening schools in the fall. The current options all include staggered schedules: for example, having half of students come in the morning, and half in the afternoon. Or, having students alternate days – or weeks - of in-person and virtual instruction.

“As one can imagine, strict social distancing with a classroom of 25 fourth graders is a challenge, as is the case with 25 seventh graders or 25 11th graders,” RPS superintendent Jason Kamras said during Monday’s school board meeting. “And so one of the ways to tackle that is to limit the number of students that are present at any given time.”

They’re also surveying parents and teachers about which option they prefer. According to preliminary survey responses from about 500 parents so far, the majority preferred alternating days over all other options. That appears to be the most popular option among a little over 300 teachers surveyed so far, although nearly half of those teachers are not comfortable returning in the fall.

“And there are many versions of this one [alternating days], but one version is half the students come on Monday and Tuesday. The other half comes on Wednesday and Thursday,” Kamras said. “You have cleaning Tuesday evening, and then you can hold class virtual learning on Friday.”

Another option would also split students into two groups, but without Friday virtual learning for all. One-half would go to school three days a week one week, and two days a week the next while the other group does the reverse. An option that includes a Saturday day was the most unpopular option among both parents and teachers.

School board members had a lot of questions. Board member Liz Doerr said she’d like to see the administration add an option that includes a full fall reopening without staggered schedules.

“For some families, it might just cost-wise not be an option to have to find childcare for two or three days a week,” Doerr said. “And so as much as it pains me to say, from a public health perspective, I do think we need to consider all options on the table.”

Board member Kenya Gibson questioned whether the district would include an “opt-out” option for parents who choose not to send their kids back for in-person instruction, for health or other reasons.

“As a district, are we planning on providing a way for parents to homeschool? What is that going to look like in terms of opting out?” Gibson questioned. “And as we're thinking about discipline today, you know, how will we enforce social distancing? Are our teachers or our students going to be penalized if they don't adhere to a social distancing rule?”

Board member Scott Barlow questioned what options would be available for teachers who might not feel comfortable returning in the fall, due to personal medical concerns or the medical concerns of relatives. He also requested additional details about the district’s approach to any future COVID-19 positive cases or outbreaks among students or staff.

“I am curious to know, on the building level and the district level, how we handle a situation where we find out a staff member or student or a student’s family member is exposed and has COVID because it seems to me like we may have certain buildings that are open and certain buildings that may need to be closed,” Barlow said. “I don't know if a district-wide reaction is necessary in each of those cases or if we may be working on a school-specific basis depending on the risks associated with those particular students and staff.”

The district is still gathering input from families and staff, making surveys available in English and Spanish and conducting surveys at food distribution sites. The school board will hold a special meeting on June 29th to talk through options in greater detail, analyze additional responses from surveys and try to work towards a consensus. Kamras says the district needs to finalize a plan by mid-July at the very latest. School systems are required to submit plans to the state for final approval before reopening under phases two or three.

“It would be ideal if we could have a unified approach [across the region],” Kamras said. “A lot of our educators live in the counties and have kids going to school in the counties. And so when we're on one schedule, and they're on another, it certainly creates some challenges. And so we're going to do the best we can on that front.”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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