State School Superintendent Tours Eastern Shore Schools

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Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane listens to Accomack schools Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall explain how the school division has been able to offer students in-person learning options during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane visited from Richmond last week at Kiptopeke Elementary School in Northampton County and Metompkin Elementary and Tangier Combined schools in Accomack County to see how the two school divisions have safely provided students in-person learning opportunities throughout the 2020-2021 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eastern Shore Post followed the state superintendent on a March 4 tour of Metompkin Elementary School in Parksley, led by Accomack school administrators.

Accomack school administrators spent the summer of 2020 writing the Return to Learn plan, which offered students two learning options for the 2020-2021 school year: 100% virtual learning, including remote instruction four days a week, or hybrid learning, consisting of two days a week of remote instruction and two days a week in the classroom.

Students in the hybrid program were divided into two groups that attend school in person on alternating days Monday through Thursday, leaving Fridays open for deep cleaning and sanitizing.

This means only half of the students attending school in person are physically present in the school buildings at once, giving them twice as much space in which to spread out.

When Accomack administrators included the hybrid learning option in the Return to Learn plan, they prioritized student groups who benefit most from in-person learning, such as preschool-age children, students with disabilities, and English learners.

More than 40% of Metompkin students are English learners and their primary language is usually Haitian or Spanish, said Principal Ruth Tankard.

The Return to Learn plan was written with confidence in the ability of students to follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall said some parents were doubtful that children would wear face masks in school all day (with scheduled breaks) but once the students were in the classroom and saw others modeling the behavior, they complied.

Each student keeps his or her own container of school supplies to use throughout the day; supplies are not shared to limit the spread of germs.

Students stay in one classroom for most of the school day, including during breakfast and lunch.

Specials teachers also bring art, music, and physical education to the classroom.

Outside visitors must sign in when they arrive and sign out when they leave for contact tracing purposes, Hall added.

Technology is key in making virtual and hybrid learning work.

Every student has access to a Chromebook laptop or another device that is used in class and at home. Free Wi-Fi hotspots were installed in small communities that had high concentrations of Accomack students whose families lacked internet access.

Students with limited or no internet access can get their assignments loaded onto a USB drive to complete on their laptops at home.

The technology used includes both hardware and software. Computer apps such as Canvas, Kami, and Nearpod all have become familiar to Accomack students this year.

Teachers attended technology training courses on Saturdays, and technology lessons were taught to children at the beginning of the school year, Tankard said.

Students practiced using the technology in school until they were able to use it independently at home.

The newly acquired tech savvy provides an added bonus: when school opens late or is closed due to inclement weather, learning can continue at home, Tankard noted.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, traditional field trips have not been possible, but Metompkin students take many virtual field trips, she said.

The current school year, which has taken place entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been vastly different from years past, but Accomack teachers and administrators have risen to the challenge.

“It’s exciting,” Hall said. “It’s almost like your first year of teaching and learning it all over again.”