County school board splits on reopening plan details


WISE — Tuesday evening, the county School Board agreed to delay the opening of school from Aug. 6 until Aug. 20.

The board also voted 5-1, with two members abstaining, to approve a hybrid learning system that will have students in class two days per week. Group A will attend on Monday and Tuesday while Group B will be in school on Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays will be reserved for deep cleaning and remote learning. All students and their parents will still be able to choose an all-remote option.

Before the vote, Director of Technology Scott Kiser spoke about the results of the reopening survey that was sent out to parents. Last year, county schools had 5,500 students, and they received 5,204 responses to the survey.

Almost half (49.9 percent) of those filling out the survey preferred a full-time return to class while the other half preferred the hybrid schedule (27.6 percent) or full-time remote learning (22.5 percent).

One of the biggest concerns has revolved around bus transportation, as face masks and social distancing must be enforced. According to the survey data, 3,403 parents/guardians answered they would be able to drop their children off at school (1,546 would require transportation). However, the number of students who would require a bus ride home from school increased dramatically to 2,292, with 2,661 still able to pick up their student after school.

Another concern with remote learning has been those children who do not have access to broadband internet or devices with which to work. In the survey, 4,110 students have broadband internet while the remainder either do not have it or do not have access to it.

Kiser advised that wi-fi in the division office as well as other locations in Wise County would be extended to the parking lot to give students a place to connect and work. Almost 75 percent of students said they had devices other than a cellular phone at home to use for online work. Kiser stated that anyone who does not have a device will be provided a school-owned device to complete their work.

Daniel Vanover also spoke to the fact that teachers are receiving extensive training in the Google Classroom platform as well as having several additional platforms at their disposal. The technology team is also setting up a website to assist parents and students with the transition to online learning.

Vanover also stated it is important that each teacher set up their teaching style to reach those without internet first. The county has purchased an extensive amount of jump drives so that teachers can load a week’s worth of work and instructional videos at a time for these students.

After an extensive delay once the motion was made by John Graham and seconded by Chairman Larry Greear, the hybrid schedule was approved, with board member Herb Shortt voting no and members Donnese Kern and Martha Jett abstaining. All eight board members approved the measure to delay the start of the school year.

During the voting, Greear and Superintendent Greg Mullins discussed the possibility of COVID-19 cases continuing to increase during the next month before school starts.

“We may have to get together at the end of July and look at a different learning plan,” Mullins said. “We may even have to delay until after Labor Day. We may have to just call a meeting and come in and talk about calendars and instruction plans.”

He continued: “We believe that children being in school is the best thing for them. But how do we get as many children in our schools as safely as possible, while at the same time protecting their health and the health of our employees? At this time, we believe this to be the best plan.”

The school board also voted unanimously to add furlough language to employment contracts.

Mullins advised the board that by adding the provisions, furloughed employees retain their benefits and their original work date with the Virginia Retirement System plan as they handle any upcoming funding cuts to the school budget.

According to Mullins, any further decision on furloughs would come to the school board for review. Mullins also stated he would be the first person furloughed and the county would proceed from that point.