(CHPS staff dressed for spirit day on October 29th.)
The information in this article comes from multiple interviews over the last month with the Superintendent, teachers, parents of students, and members of the community.
Colonial Heights is one of the few localities in central-Virginia that chose to begin the school year with students attending in-person. Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam said that this matter was not something that required a one size fits all solution, he instead left the decision up to the individual localities and their school boards.
Colonial Heights is a small school district with only three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The city is only eight square miles and less than 20,000 people live within its limits.
The school board for Colonial Heights Public Schools (CHPS) approved a plan over the summer that provided families with two options: in-person learning for five days a week, or a fully-virtual academy. Administrators say it was a fairly even split of students in virtual compared to in-person. The plan separates buildings into “learning zones” in an attempt to limit the spread if COVID-19 makes it inside the building. The plan had succeeded in keeping schools open, at first.
After the plan was approved, CHPS had to prepare the buildings for students to return on the first day. Teachers removed extra desks from their classrooms, aides lined hallways with tape to ensure that students kept their distance, schools set up signs in front of the school to separate grades at drop off and pick up, work began to improve the ventilation systems and more.
As the Superintendent of one of the first and only school districts in the Commonwealth to have students back full time, Dr. William Sroufe said they have not had to make any significant changes to their plans since students returned, telling Virginia Scope that “there have been little tweaks here and there.” Sroufe said the Superintendent Advisory Committee and the individual school leaders often provide suggestions for improvements, but so far there have been no drastic changes. “The building leadership did a really good job of coming up with specific plans for their campuses.”
In October, Sroufe said that his office was considering updating the plan to allow students in the building for longer. Each school is operating under a shorter school day, with the latest schools clearing out by 2 p.m. Sroufe says that the Department of Education has not loosened up on instructional time required, however, meaning they have to work harder to make up for those lost afternoon hours. “We still have an obligation to be in front of our students,” he said.
“We didn’t realize how big of a division that would cause for people,” said Sroufe, in reference to families in the virtual academy feeling left out of the school community. “Even our teachers were feeling like they were not part of something, feeling isolated from their individual school.”
Parents have mentioned the isolation in the virtual academy, not in a critique of the school system, but as a matter of fact. The virtual academy has a dedicated administrator and a separate school mascot. This has left students and their families longing for the community connection that is hard to grasp while learning from home.
“I think [Amy] Stewart has done a good job,” said Sroufe, noting that the director of the virtual academy, Amy Stewart, has started multiple clubs in an effort to provide more of a community feeling for virtual students. “She has organized a number of events just for virtual students, including starting three clubs.”
Sroufe said in an interview that CHPS began purchasing PPE and the necessary technology back in March of this year – which he said helped them to be adequately prepared for the new school year. He also discussed his appreciation for the CARES Act money from the federal government and how useful that has been. Colonial Heights received over $1 million in federal grant money – that money has tight restrictions, however, and must be spent within a specific timeframe.
“You have to be very strategic in how you spend the money,” said Sroufe about the federal funding. One way that CHPS is planning to spend some of that money was by giving a bonus to the schools’ employees. “We looked at a number of different bonus structures, but what we came up with was to give all of our full-time staff, whether you’re a bus driver, custodian, teacher, or administrator, $800,” said Sroufe. Part-time staff will get a prorated amount and he told Virginia Scope that they also put together a stipend for substitutes. “We want to make sure that they feel valued in our school division.”
Sroufe said he is not concerned about overall funding being impacted by the pandemic. However, he did express concern over potentially losing funding due to fewer students being enrolled this year due to COVID-19. He said it could “make or break” the district and that he is hopeful that the Governor and General Assembly would not allow that to happen. Some students have transferred to private schools or homeschool programs, reducing the number of students that attend schools in the city.
What happened when COVID-19 made it into a school?
While a few cases were reported earlier in the year, CHPS did not have to shut down any school buildings until the end of October when multiple positive cases of COVID-19 were reported at Lakeview Elementary. According to Sroufe, the first two positive cases were located in different learning zones within the school. Additionally, after contact tracing, they realized that some individuals were moving from zone-to-zone, which led to them closing the building. The students and teachers were given two days to prepare for virtual learning.
Sroufe said at the time that the transition went smoothly and several parents expressed their appreciation for CHPS with Virginia Scope on Facebook “I have nothing but positive things to say about the school district, Lakeview staff & teachers in particular,” said Courtney Brooks. “They’ve done a phenomenal job navigating through these unprecedented times. I’m proud my son is an Owl!”
No other cases were reported at the school according to Sroufe and Lakeview reopened for in-person learning two weeks after the school was closed.
The second closing happened in mid-November when multiple cases were reported at the city’s high school. Three cases were reported at Colonial Heights High School prompting the closure. In a message to families on November 11th, CHPS said the school would be closing immediately and remain closed to in-person learning until November 30th. The Virginia Department of Health tested the staff at the school the next day according to Sroufe and no additional positive cases were reported.
In a message to families on November 17th, CHPS announced that the two days before Thanksgiving break will be virtual-only along with the week after Thanksgiving break for the entire district. ”The safety of our students, staff, and community is a top priority for Colonial Heights Public Schools,” said CHPS in the statement. “We continue to follow the guidelines and safety protocols outlined by the Chesterfield Virginia Department of Health.“
“Make sure to take some time for yourselves. Step back and do a sanity check.”
Sroufe said he is aware of the impacts on teachers as they try to navigate the new normal during the health crisis. He stressed the need for self-care the importance of teachers taking advantage of the Employee Assistance Program, (EAP) which is set up to provide school staff with mental health care and counseling. “We have great educators across the Commonwealth,” said Sroufe. “They are working relentlessly on this.”
After guiding a school district through unprecedented times in a manner that not many other Superintendents have had to do yet, the advice Sroufe offered to districts as they attempt to bring students back for some form of in-person learning is simple; “step back and look at the larger picture.”
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