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Waynesboro Schools hope to reopen with ‘hybrid model’ by spring semester

By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press

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WAYNESBORO — Summer is a memory for public school students, and soon virtual learning will almost be a memory.

“Our plan is to open all of our schools on a hybrid model for instruction [to all students] who want to return to the buildings for second semester,” said Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell, at Waynesboro School Board’s regular meeting Tuesday night held in the Louis Spilman Auditorium at Waynesboro High School.

Cassell hopes to have all students back in schools by spring semester who are willing to attend in person.

Waynesboro Schools will follow the hybrid model similar to what is in place in Augusta County Public Schools: two days a week of in-person instruction with three days a week of virtual.

However, Waynesboro Schools may at some point choose to go more days per week of in-person learning.

“We also want to maintain the synchronous learning,” Cassell said.

The school system opened virtually for the 2020-2021 academic year on Aug. 31.

Cassell said that students have not been taught in person for seven months. Waynesboro teachers have “permission to do things they’ve never done before,” such as teach outdoors when temperatures and weather permit.

The updated reopening plan means that some students who change to in-person education in the spring semester will have a different teacher. Some teachers will teach only virtual classes, and other teachers teach in person.

“This is a highly inconvenient pandemic. There are so many layers to everything we do,” Cassell said.

According to Cassell, the state average for students wishing to attend school virtually is 30 percent.

He said it is important to get kindergarten and first-grade students back into classrooms, because they are just starting their public education careers.

On Oct. 19, kindergarten students are welcome to return to in-person instruction. Cassell said that the option of in-person instruction will be the choice of parents. The school system anticipates 70 percent of students to return to the classroom in person and 30 percent to continue virtual learning.

Few cases of COVID-19, Cassell said, have been reported in Virginia which required closing an entire school system. In some cases, only certain classrooms were closed because of positive cases.

“This is not going to go away this school year. We’re in this through June or July,” Cassell said of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on Virginia schools.

Waynesboro Schools is boasting an enrollment of almost 2,855 students. In the spring, Cassell and staff had budgeted for the school system to have an enrollment of at least 2,850.

“Our designation of the hybrid model continues to evolve,” Cassell said.

For the 2020-2021 academic year, Cassell said that all staff members have had access to personal protective equipment and hydrogen peroxide in classrooms for sanitizing, and must undergo daily health screenings. Staff members are encouraged to stay home when feeling ill.

School custodians sanitize high-touch surfaces, especially bathrooms, every day.

Waynesboro Schools is in daily communication with the Central Shenandoah Health Department.

Most students have participated in public education remotely either via Zoom or Canvas.

Special needs and English as a second language students have been attending classes in person.

Valley Academy, the STEP Learning Lab, Valley Career & Technical Center and Shenandoah Valley Governors School have been exercising the hybrid model of two days of in-person instruction and three days of virtual instruction for students.

Modifications for the reopening plan, Cassell said, include a requirement that masks are worn by students and staff at all times inside Waynesboro Schools buildings. “Mask breaks” will be allowed.

“Students adjust very quickly to the masks,” Cassell said.

He noted that all members of the audience at Tuesday’s meeting were wearing masks, as well as school board members and staff.

Masks must be cloth or fabric. Bandanas as masks and face shields with valves or vents will not be permitted. Face shields without masks will not be permitted unless an individual has a medical condition that would be inhibited by wearing a mask.

Moving forward into 2021, Cassell said the number of students participating in in-person education will increase, but is limited by classroom space. In each classroom, students and teachers will be required to social distance and wear masks.

Cassell said that Waynesboro Schools has had some positive cases of COVID-19, but transmission was determined to have been outside of the school system at events such as weddings and family gatherings.

In comments from the public at the beginning of Tuesday night’s meeting, Rosemary Wagoner, president of the Waynesboro Education Association, said that the board’s decision in August to reopen schools virtually was the hard decision but “the right decision.” Students are getting live instruction “every single day.”

“We need to commend our community,” said Wagoner. “This community has come to be here for our children to help them be able to do their instruction they need to do.”

She said that “maybe some people who weren’t crazy about the idea” of virtual learning for the 2020-2021 academic year are the same individuals working hard to ensure the education of Waynesboro students at home.

In closing board comments, Debra Freeman-Belle said the school system and community are “finding Waynesboro solutions, and I commend that.”

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