The top trending stories in The News Virginian focus on the opening of public schools in Waynesboro and Augusta County on Aug. 18.
With some variations, the plans offer students the option of virtual instruction or a modified approach where in a given week students come to school twice. These are not options desired by school boards, but rather the consensus of how best to impart knowledge during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history.
Those with discouraging words need to take time to appreciate the difficulties of the moment and accept there is no proven path. Breaking new ground is always with uncertainty.
Let’s first understand nothing will be the same for any student or school employee in the coming year.
The changes start with the venerable school bus. Before it arrives at a student’s house, they are to be cleaned and disinfected as prescribed on Virginia’s Department of Education’s document entitled “COVID-19 school bus sanitation procedures.” This cleaning will be done before each trip in the morning and afternoon.
The students will be masked and appropriately distanced. In so doing the bus capacity is limited to 26 youngsters. The math for Augusta’s 10,300 students works out to be 396 routes, twice a day. To avoid doubling the number of busses and drivers, all routes are to be run twice. What had been 1,550 weekly bus runs becomes 2,480 for four days.
On arrival each student is screened for illness by taking temperatures as well as sight evaluations and asking students pertinent health questions. This becomes 1,500 additional tasks daily for Waynesboro schools, 1,400 for Staunton and 5,150 for Augusta.
Attendance taking is required for both those in school and those at home. Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has issued Memo #188-20 “Tracking Attendance.” The memo lays out the requirement to record both a physical school presence as well as access and participation by those at home. Making daily individual contact with half of the school’s population will be time consuming but certainly important.
Food service will no longer be in the cafeteria, but delivered to classrooms with the remains then picked up after eating. This of course is labor intensive, inefficient, but necessary to hold down avoidable opportunities for infection.
For the janitorial workers the demands will be for more intensive then in times past. The cleanliness requirements move from those in say a hospital waiting room to approaching those in the surgery suite.
The demands on the administrators are complex and changing. The superintendent mentioned above issued nine other directives that same day. It surely becomes a challenge to keep-up with today’s new instructions; while still working on yesterday’s plans.
We need patience. Most of the folks are working hard with good intentions. But the mission is likely the most burdensome of their careers. “How can learning be accomplished safely during a pandemic?”
Our school boards are good at working within the constraints presented by funding. But in this purpose, in this time, I believe we need a different standard. The lives of our children, and those working to insure their good futures, demand we provide whatever is necessary to keep all safe and healthy.
Presently the CARES Act has provided some of the necessary funding: $1,104,105 for Augusta, $693,287 for Staunton and $862,915 for Waynesboro.
While these may seem to be significant dollars; when spread over the entirety of the student population for 180 days, not so much. For example, in Augusta this is but $.59 per day, per student. This is not enough.
Although our schools, who have extraordinary new needs, are underfunded I believe the localities are relatively overfunded. Augusta County, for example, will receive $6,592,144 in coronavirus relief funds. Considering how little the county has to “relieve” this seems more like old fashion throwing money at a problem as opposed to careful evaluation and response.
During my time on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, by policy, we shared all new revenue 50:50 with the school board. This should be the minimum for the county and for the cities with these new dollars ($2,175,221 for Staunton and $1,974,380 for Waynesboro). And if after any actual locality needs, there is some money left, send that over too. It has a need.
We trust this virus can be defeated during this school year. That proms and graduations await the Class of 2021. And that the community will have done all it could to make their final year the best one ever.
Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.