During Thursday night’s Waynesboro School Board meeting at Waynesboro High School, the school board received an update on the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine on the school system.
“We have done a lot of planning this week moving forward into the unknown,” said Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell, “and, having lots of questions, don’t have answers to many of those concerning as we don’t know what all of the questions are yet.”
The school system was able to begin a meal program for students on Tuesday. Curbside pickup is available at all four elementary schools, and school buses drove this past week to designated sites.
Next week, according to Cassell, three vans instead of school buses will deliver food to designated neighborhoods and even individual family homes if necessary. The buses were used last week, Cassell said, because the school system knew that children and families would recognize the buses when delivering food.
“Participation has increased from Tuesday to [Thursday],” Cassell said.
He anticipated participation in the meal program to increase Friday, and again next week during Spring Break.
“We’ve also begun to plan instructionally to be closed longer than next week,” Cassell said.
Staff is considering “what that might look like going forward” for teachers and students after Spring Break.
Cassell said he has “been most impressed” with the willingness of Waynesboro Schools’ teachers to volunteer their time, as well as teachers expressing their interest in helping the school system plan instructional packets for students to have if school remains closed after Spring Break.
At Thursday night’s called meeting, Cassell said 41 states in the United States have closed their public schools.
On Friday, he spoke with the U.S. Department of Education by conference call, and was informed that Virginia will request a waiver in the coming weeks from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Almost certainly, that will be granted, and we won’t have SOL testing this school year [in May],” Cassell told The News Virginian on Friday afternoon.
At Thursday night’s meeting, Cassell said he thought that would “relieve a good deal of stress for folks if we don’t have to deal with standardized testing.
“I’ll be surprised if we return [to school] before May,” Cassell said. “I don’t believe schools will open in April.”
Cassell said he hoped Gov. Ralph Northam would make a proclamation, perhaps this weekend, regarding school closures continuing after March 30.
If students and teachers are able to return to school in May, Cassell said the school system feels confident that it would be able to make up for lost time and fill the instructional gap caused by COVID-19 quarantine, especially if testing is not scheduled in May.
If Waynesboro Schools students and teachers do not return to school this academic year, “I don’t know what that looks like,” Cassell said.
He spoke with Blue Ridge Community College President John Downey to ensure that dual enrollment students are still given the opportunity to complete content and “for them to get their college credits.”
“That’s a concern for both he and I,” Cassell said.
Cassell said that Dr. James Lane, Virginia’s Superintendent of Schools, assures school systems that students will graduate on time for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Materials sent home with students on March 13 to keep up during school closure will not be graded, Cassell said.
“That’s an equity issue,” for the school system, Cassell said, because some homes do not have Internet and some homes do not have an individual available to assist students with school work who need help.
“We also do not have a way through which to provide special education services,” Cassell said.
At this point, Waynesboro Schools students are encouraged to participate with the materials sent home, but the material will not be graded.
School board member Erika Smith asked about high school seniors bound for college.
Cassell said the challenge the school system has is college-bound high school seniors, as well as seniors and juniors who are enrolled at Valley Career & Technical Center.
“I think there’s a lot of questions to be answered,” Cassell said.
Many Virginia colleges are postponing or cancelling graduation ceremonies, Cassell said.
“I’m not at the point to do that,” Cassell said. He suggested that Waynesboro High School graduation for the Class of 2020 be held in July if necessary. “I’d like to have a graduation ceremony.”
All field trips regarding Waynesboro Schools students have been cancelled for the remainder of the academic year, and, Cassell said, fees have been refunded.
“If we come back to school, we need to concentrate on instruction and content,” he said.
School board member Debra Freeman-Belle asked if summer instruction will be an option if students return to school later than May.
Cassell said that if students and teachers are able to return by May 1, Lane said they may be expected to attend school until June.
However, if school does not reopen before May 1, Cassell said he was unsure of good attendance.
“I think once we’ve opened we’re going to be faced with the challenge of getting students back into the building [because of the spread of the novel coronavirus],” Cassell said.
Cassell said he is hopeful that schools will reopen by May 1, but Waynesboro Schools will consider expanding summer programs if necessary.
“I think that’s going to be the best case scenario,” Cassell said.
Waynesboro Schools’ Executive Director of Student Services Dr. Ryan Barber said that staff is discussing the needs of special education students during this time.
“Cause we’re significantly worried, especially about [students] who have significant disabilities and regressed pretty significantly over a short amount of time [during the school closure],” said Barber. He said Waynesboro Schools will work individually with families of some students with special needs.
School board member Kathe Maneval asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the state’s revenue for Waynesboro Schools and whether teachers will be compensated for their contracts.
Cassell said that he expects for teachers to get paid through their contracts.
But he is unsure of what will happen to state revenue, especially the impact on sales tax revenue from restaurants closed and retail hours reduced because of COVID-19.
Cassell said he is not worried about this year’s budget.
But he is worried that if school system cannot reopen in August, he thinks “there will be a significant impact to the revenue.”
“But I don’t anticipate an impact to the current budget year,” Cassell said.
Freeman-Belle commended staff for “how impressive” they have been in recent weeks.
“I already trust my children in your care,” Freeman-Belle said. “But to see what you’ve done behind the scenes and how hard you’ve worked to make sure that the students in the city are cared for in such an unexpected disruption, thank you, and I applaud you again.”
Freeman-Belle said she is grateful for Waynesboro Schools staff, and that the work they and teachers have done in recent weeks was A+ work.