By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board approved Tuesday night a plan for students to return to school in person five days a week this September, with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place.
Chairman Paul Bull noted that “we’re approving a concept” and the back-to-school plan may change in the coming days and weeks as state and federal COVID-19 guidelines change.
The plan was written by a committee of approximately 18 members including Accomack school administrators, teachers, local health professionals, and parents, and it was based largely on recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Accomack schools will follow the recommendations of the CDC on July 9 and the AAP on July 18 and require “universal masking,” meaning all students, teachers, staff, and others must wear face masks in schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall said that it’s easier to ensure unvaccinated persons wear masks if everyone is required to wear a mask.
There was overwhelming agreement by committee members to require face masks. One parent initially was uncertain if children would comply with a face mask mandate after becoming accustomed to being mask-free over the summer, but she ultimately agreed with her peers.
“We’re erring on the side of safety, and nobody can argue with that,” Hall said.
Students must wear masks during all indoor school activities, including singing during music class and participating in physical education. However, masks are not required for outdoor physical education with social distancing of 10 feet.
Face masks also will continue to be required on Accomack school buses.
Supervisor of Transportation Services Paul Brabazon noted that early in the past school year, Accomack school buses each carried up to 11 students at a time, spaced six feet apart. When social distancing guidelines were loosened later in the year, buses transported up to 22 students at a time, spaced three feet apart.
Students will be less socially distanced on buses this school year, up to 44 students at once, or no more than two students per seat.
Brabazon observed that within the last year of the modified bus service, only five referrals were issued to students for poor behavior on the school bus, and only one of those referrals was for a student who was not wearing a face mask.
Bus drivers again will make multiple trips to and from school every morning and afternoon, since the school division still has 25 fewer bus drivers than it had pre-COVID-19.
About 70% of Accomack students ride the school bus.
School breakfasts will be served as they were this past school year: elementary school students will receive and eat breakfast in their classrooms, and middle and high school students will pick up Grab and Go breakfasts to eat in their homerooms.
Supervisor of Food Services Brandyn Berkholder said that student participation in breakfast actually increased 35% with those changes to the breakfast service.
School lunches will be served in the cafeterias as they were before COVID-19, but with social distancing. Only six students will be seated at each lunch table.
Hall noted each school principal will be responsible to plan workable lunch schedules that account for the decreased capacity of the cafeterias.
Some meal items will be cooked on-site and others will be pre-packaged, depending on what is available, Berkholder said. Fresh fruits that have been vacuum sealed also will be offered.
The school meal pickup service will again be available for virtual students and for any child under age 18. (About 60 Accomack students will learn virtually this year.) Children do not need to present for parents to pick up meals.
Coordinator of School Health Services Tonya Martin said that in addition to universal masking and three-foot social distancing, extra cleaning and sanitization measures will continue to be taken to mitigate COVID-19. Additional part-time custodians who were hired last year will continue to work this year.
For COVID-19 contact tracing purposes, no students or staff members will be considered close contacts if they have remained masked and stayed at least three feet away from others, Martin said.
Students and staff will be advised to stay home if they feel sick.
There are new procedures to determine if students must be sent home to quarantine for COVID-19.
Unvaccinated or vaccinated students who have symptoms and test positive for COVID-19 must quarantine for 10 days, after which period they may return to school if their symptoms have improved and they have had no fever for 24 hours.
Unvaccinated students who have COVID-19 symptoms but are diagnosed with another illness may return to school after their symptoms improve and they have had no fever for 24 hours.
Vaccinated students who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 must quarantine for 10 days only if they show symptoms of COVID-19.
Finance Director Beth Onley discussed the types of supplies and equipment that may be purchased with the third round of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Additional electrostatic sprayers for disinfecting school buses are being considered for purchase. School buses also may get air purifiers.
UV water coolers may be purchased, as water fountains are unlikely to make a comeback, Onley said.
Superintendent Chris Holland commended the committee members for their work and noted Accomack schools will benefit from previous experience with in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, while many school divisions are entering “uncharted waters.”