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Decision soon for Surry schools

Surry County Public Schools leaders plan to decide Aug. 3 how to start the 2020-2021 academic year.

Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia J. Sims said the division plans to open on Sept. 8 following one of three scenarios or a variation of the plans school leaders have proposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the first scenario, Surry students would receive 100% virtual instruction supplemented with instructional packets and flash drive support. Pre-K through first grade students will receive iPads, while all other students will receive Chromebooks. Select groups of students will receive in-person instruction.

Surry’s second scenario has two options. Under the first, all students could attend in-person classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and Friday would be a virtual learning day. Virtual instruction would be available at each family’s discretion; all students would receive take-home technology. Virus mitigation strategies such as face masks, daily health screenings and frequent hand washing would be implemented on buses and in schools.

Under the second option, in-person and virtual learning would be combined. Students would be split into two groups and attend on an A/B schedule, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with one group in school on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be reserved for deep cleaning of the facilities and staff planning. This option also would offer virtual learning at each family’s discretion and take home technology.

No athletics or extracurricular activities would be offered under the first or second scenarios.

Surry’s third scenario is for traditional in-person instruction without social distancing measures, although mitigation strategies such as frequent hand washing and sanitizing will be implemented. Virtual instruction would be available by request. Take-home technology and limited extracurricular activities and athletics would be offered following Virginia High School League guidelines.

Sims sent surveys to families and employees in June to get feedback on the options presented. Surry County has about 740 students in the division and 200 full-time contracted staff members.

Forty-six percent of families who responded to the survey said they were comfortable with virtual instruction; 37.5% said they were uncomfortable with that model; the rest said they were not sure how they felt. Regarding hybrid learning, where students would be in class part of the week and online the rest of the week, 38% said they were comfortable with that model, 45.5% were uncomfortable with that model.

When some of the same questions were asked of school staff, 59.3% said they were comfortable with virtual instruction, 18% were uncomfortable and the rest were not sure or the question didn’t apply to them. Regarding the hybrid teaching model, 59% were OK with it and 18% were uncomfortable with this option.

Asked about their child’s food situation, 98% of families said it was stable; but of that 98 percent, 20 percent of those responding said the meals provided by the division contributed to their food stability.

“Twenty percent is a large amount to say that they are depending on the school division,” for food, Sims said in a phone interview. In addition, 73% of families said they have internet access at home. But asked if it was reliable, 43% said no.

“That’s fueling some of the decisions on whether or not we can be virtual here in Surry,” Sims said.

Another challenge to reopening school is transportation. A majority of those responding said they would depend on bus transportation; 31% would drive their kids to school and a very small percentage of students would drive themselves.

In order to solicit further feedback, several community listening sessions were held at Luther Porter Jackson Middle School. The sessions began on July 23 and are set to end on July 30.

“I have been working with administrators for the last several weeks to ensure that we create a healthy and safe plan for the reopening of schools that meets the needs of our students and staff members,” Sims wrote in a July 15 letter to the community. “We will continue to closely monitor information related to coronavirus transmission trends in and around Surry. However, we recognize that our plans need to be flexible due to the uncertainties associated with the virus.”

In her letter, Sims also said that “the scenario that we select for the start of the school year will also be significantly influenced by which phase of reopening the state is in at the beginning of the school year. … It will be a complicated and difficult decision to make.”

As the first day approaches, Surry schools will have a funding boost from the federal government. The school division received $171,429 through the CARES Act. The federal money is intended to address education-related issues that have arisen as a result of COVID-19.

Sims said she appreciates the support of the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Melissa Rollins, and the community at large.

“We’re not in this by ourselves, by no means,” Sims said.