I am writing this letter in support of the Botetourt County School Board and new superintendent Dr. Russ as they endeavor to re-open schools safely this academic year. The approved plan was based on guidance from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education, in addition to applying the expertise of the staff, parent and student advisory committees and a parent survey to tailor the plan to our community. Schools will reopen as a combination of in-person and a virtual learning structure.
It is well established that social distancing is a critical factor to contain the spread of COVID-19. For schools, this means that the number of children in a classroom or on bus, for example, must decrease to provide more space for children to spread out. Of course, there are several ways to accomplish that. One way is to increase classroom space by purchasing temporary trailers, hiring more teachers, buying more buses and hiring more drivers. Obviously, none of these can be done; therefore, a different way must be devised by changing policy, schedules and routines.
A reasonable approach was approved in the School Board plan. Every grade level is to be grouped as “A” or “B.” One group attends school on Monday and Thursday and the other on Tuesday and Friday. On the days not in school, students will be required to participate virtually. Wednesday and Saturday are dedicated to deep-cleaning sanitization days. Yes, this schedule presents plenty of challenges but also plenty of opportunities for this community to pull together and design solutions to help our friends and neighbors.
How do we ensure adequate virtual learning for students – both from an educational perspective and an internet access perspective? What do we do about safe daycare for parents without a teleworking option? How do we provide at least one nutritional meal a day for children without that at home? How do we compensate teachers for having to prepare two types of instructional plans? How do we protect teachers and staff who will become sick and how do we relax sick leave policies to compensate for 14 days of quarantine when they are positive for COVID-19? What do we do to pressure parents’ employers to improve options for teleworking, flex time or alternate schedules?
The US COVID-19 death rate for children according to the CDC is 0.12 percent (from data reported February-April 2020). Doesn’t that sound like a tiny acceptable risk to take in order to allow schools to open normally five days a week? We have 4,505 children enrolled in our school system…if 0.12 percent dies, that is five children in Botetourt. Are we ok with that as an acceptable risk?
The School Board has adopted an approach to protect our children and citizens the best that they can. Yes, it will be hard. Living through a pandemic is hard. Being open-minded, solution-oriented and responsible is not hard. Let’s all work with the board to make an impossible situation a little easier on our children by supporting their decision and doing what we can to make it as successful as possible.
Beth Leffel, PhD, MPH