BRISTOL, Va. — City schools will alter time schedules starting in August in response to COVID-19 safety guidelines, following a Monday decision by the city School Board.
Classes will begin an hour earlier for city elementary students this year, while middle and high school students will start their days an hour later when classes are scheduled to resume next month. The board agreed with a proposal to flip-flop start times in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That decision is one piece of a complex plan school officials are developing to get students back into classrooms safely while observing social distancing, cleaning and other health guidelines designed to minimize the spread of the virus.
“The toughest regulations we’ll have to deal with in reopening schools is the limit we’re going to have on our bus routes,” Superintendent Keith Perrigan said. “We have some routes [where] we could have to triple the amount of runs we have for that one route. That’s going to cause delays, and we’re taking temperature checks on all students, [which] is going to cause delays, and there can be [random] delays anyway.
“We would much rather the delays affect an older student who can be at a bus stop by themselves than a younger student. To me, it makes sense from a safety standpoint considering all the obstacles we’re going to face this fall.”
The state has issued a series of guidelines for reopening schools, but state officials now say decisions on reopening specifics belong with local school boards.
To that end, the board voted 5-0 on a resolution to urge Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia departments of education and health to clarify some aspects of the guidance to local schools by July 15, which is the date Perrigan set for the division to complete its overall draft reopening plan.
The resolution asks state officials to “grant local school boards the specific authority to create local transportation plans for transporting students to and from school in a manner that is practical, safe, healthy and effective in consultation with their local health department, with no fewer than one student per seat on the school bus.”
At present, the World Health Organization recommends limiting the number of students on school buses, using 3 feet of social distancing. That would allow the city to transport 22 students per bus, but some city buses carry as many as 70, Perrigan said. Each bus would also have to be sanitized between each run, meaning some lengthy delays in getting students to and from school.
Under the plan, elementary students would be in class from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. while middle and high school students would begin class about 9 a.m. and conclude about 3:30.
The board voiced little objection to the plan, which includes reducing overall instruction time by 30 minutes to better provide supervision and further accommodate those delays. It would also force some additional schedule changes, especially for high school students in extracurricular activities or sports.
The division studied the effects of these school day start times more than a year ago, but the board took no action. Studies show that older students learn better when starting days later, while the opposite is true for younger students, Perrigan said.
“This is a painless decision,” newly elected board member Frank Goodpasture III said. “It makes sense educationally and safety-wise.”
Steve Fletcher, who was unanimously chosen to remain as board chairman, said he didn’t want kindergarten or first grade students waiting for “30 minutes” at bus stops.
Perrigan said they intend to keep parents and board members informed of progress as plans evolve to get students back in the classroom in August.
The board also directed Perrigan to pursue a potential rezoning that could shift a total of 64 students between the city’s four elementary schools as a way to reduce some class sizes to better meet COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
In other matters, the board reviewed but made no comment on its written policy for renaming schools. The city has two elementary schools named for Confederate generals — Stonewall Jackson and Washington-Lee. Perrigan presented the policy amid a national discussion over the removal of Confederate statues and the naming of buildings and entities that honor them.
Board member Tyrone Foster asked if there had been any public input, and Perrigan said he had received one phone call and one email, both indicating the names shouldn’t be changed.
No one from the public spoke on the issue, and the one person who signed up left the meeting prior to the public comment segment.
“All we had on the agenda was [to] review a policy that was written in 2015. We had no intent of discussing name changes of schools. With our meeting tonight, we’ve got a lot of more important, pressing issues,” Fletcher said. “The only feedback I’ve gotten is there is no reason to change them.”
Perrigan said Monday’s process was to remind the board and inform the public how a renaming process would work.
“If we’re going to receive input, our board needs to be very aware of the policy,” Perrigan said. “It’s not just an arbitrary event to name a new school or change the name of an existing school. … I think our board understands the importance of naming a building and that it rests with the community. I think they’re anxious to hear the input that may come from our meeting tonight.”
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