The Warren County school system will implement virtual learning for all grades to begin the 2020-21 school year in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially with  a spike in positive cases in North Carolina.

 The Warren County Board of Education unanimously approved the recommendation during its regular meeting on July 14.

As ordered by the state, the 2020-21 school year will begin on Aug. 17. Virtual learning will be in place for the first quarter of the school year, which will end on Oct. 9. The school system will continue to monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus to determine when, or if, students will return to the classroom this school year.

 Preparations reveal obstacles

Warren County Schools Chief Operations Officer Andre Stewart told the board that the state mandated that school systems develop the following three options for opening school: a full return to school buildings, a combination of in-person and virtual learning, and a virtual academy. He noted that the state required every school district in North Carolina to develop virtual academies for students whose parents did not feel comfortable in sending them back to school.

Warren County Schools prepared for a potential return to class with plans for daily temperature checks, social distancing in classrooms and on buses, sanitizing school buses after each run, cleaning and disinfecting school buildings, serving meals in classrooms instead of cafeterias, and making hallways one way to help with social distancing.

However, in making plans for students to return to class, school system officials discovered problems with no simple solutions.

Stewart said that the school system studied how to space student desks in classrooms and learned that the maximum number of desks allowed in classrooms would be 13. Stewart noted that some classes have up to 30 students, and school officials concluded that Warren County Schools does not have enough building space or staff numbers to cover a full return to class.

The school system considered the model that would allow students to split their time in the classroom with virtual learning. The number of its students would be divided in half. Each group would alternate a week spent in class with a week of virtual learning.

However, even with half of students attending school at one time, there would still be problems related to bus transportation.

Stewart said that social distancing would mean that no more than 11 students could ride the bus at the same time, with the exception of siblings. Normally, each bus carries 45 students per route, he added.

Stewart said that having students back in school full-time or on a staggered schedule would mean spending more money to ensure that the school system had enough face masks. He noted that the state requirement for all students to wear masks would pose a serious problem for younger students, who may not be able to wear them for long periods or time, wave them around, trade them with friends, or lose them. 

Concerns from parents and staff

Stewart said that many parents and staff members raised concerns about whether it would be safe to return to school buildings next month.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, three parents asked if it would be safe for their children to return to class. Their comments presented variations of the same concerns: too many unknowns related to the novel coronavirus; and, that children could be placing their lives on the line every day because the most extensive of precautions might not be enough to prevent a child from becoming sick.

Stewart noted that in less than a week Warren County Schools received 200 applications to its virtual academy.

He added that parents and grandparents had contacted him by phone call and text.

“There are a lot of fearful parents and grandparents,” Stewart said. “A lot of people are worried because there is no vaccine.”

He noted that a grandfather whose high school-aged grandson lives with him worried that his grandson could become sick and pass the virus on to him.

Stewart described the results of a recent school system parent survey that garnered 1,271 responses. Of those, 24.70 percent were hesitant and concerned about sending their children back to school. Another 35.41 percent were extremely uncomfortable, and 17.62 percent would not send their children back to school unless there is a COVID-19 vaccine and/or treatment.

Stewart added that a staff survey, which drew 248 responses, yielded similar results. Of those responding, 34.27 percent were hesitant and concerned about being in school buildings on a staggered schedule, 20.16 percent were extremely uncomfortable, and 6.05 percent did not plan to return to school buildings until it is safe to return.

Stewart said that staff members in high-risk categories due to age and/or preexisting conditions were especially worried about returning to school.

All of these concerns led to the recommendation to begin the school year by using virtual education. 

How virtual learning will look

Stewart said that Warren County Schools will provide Chromebooks to all of its students for a fee of $20. With the board’s decision, the school system will work to set up WiFi hot spots for students in areas without internet access.

In addition, Warren County Schools is working to ensure that students will continue to have access to meals at its feeding sites.

In a statement released last week, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mary Young indicated that instruction would be offered five days a week with live lessons to supplement pre-recorded lessons. Breakout sessions will be provided to support students with special needs and English language learners.

Young added that all students will receive digital devices, Wi-Fi hotspots would be distributed, and the school system would try to cover the cost of internet access for families in need.

According to the statement, parent support centers will be established across the county to assist with technology support and other aspects of virtual learning. 

In addition, students meals will be offered daily at three sites: Warren County High School, Northside K-8 School, and Vaughan Elementary School.

Young indicated that this week Warren County Schools will work to develop plans to support English language learners, students with special needs and youth from low-income families during the time that virtual learning will be utilized.

The school system will reassess conditions related to COVID-19 in September. Young noted that families would be offered the option to continue virtual learning or begin a learning model which would combine classroom time with virtual learning.

Warren County Schools hopes that students will be able to return to school building in the winter.

Virtual town hall meetings

Warren County Schools will sponsor two virtual community town hall meetings to allow the public to voice questions and concerns about the opening of school, virtual learning and athletics.

The meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22, and Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Members of the public may join the meeting by going to meet.google.com/gbv-hohi-sqb

The call-in number is 1-210-951-9476, and the PIN is 988 478 624#.

The public will be able to ask questions directly to school system representatives during the meetings.