Manassas schools to begin year with virtual-only instruction

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The Manassas City School Board voted Tuesday night for full distance learning to begin the 2020 fall semester, with a delay for the first day until Aug. 31.

Some special education students and level one and two English-as-second-language students will be allowed to return for some in-person instruction to begin the school year, but the remainder of students will begin the school year entirely through online learning.

The board agreed to revisit the decision and consider moving to some in-person instruction on a monthly basis. Superintendent Kevin Newman recommended the delay for the start of the school year to allow teachers and parents more time to prepare for online learning and for all the requisite materials to arrive.

School board Chair Sanford Williams was joined by board members Tim Demeria, Suzanne Seaberg and Lisa Stevens in supporting full distance learning. Members Kristen Kiefer, Scott Albrecht and Robyn Williams supported some in-person learning. The subsequent vote to delay the start date passed unanimously.

“The safety and well-being of our staff and our students and their families is more important than the reopening of schools in person at this time,” Seaberg said. “I acknowledge that option three is not ideal for some reasons. In some situations parents will need to find child care … these matters have to take a backseat to health and safety.”

Last week, the board was presented with three options by the system’s administrative staff. Option one was 100% in-person learning, though it was quickly noted Tuesday night that it would be impossible to bring all of the district’s nearly 8,000 students back for in-person learning and comply with guidance for reopening schools published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Option two offered a mix of in-person and online instruction. The third option, which the board selected Tuesday night, was for full online learning.

In a survey of Manassas public school parents taken between June 24 and July 2, 36% of the 1,928 respondents said they were comfortable or somewhat comfortable returning in person and 52% said they were uncomfortable or somewhat uncomfortable. Meanwhile, 49% of the 749 staff members who responded said they were comfortable or somewhat comfortable, and 40% said they were uncomfortable. But only 20% agreed that social distancing was possible in classrooms.

Since schools closed March 12 as cases first surged, the school district has been operating three meal distribution centers, providing students with 2 meals per school day. That would continue for as long as students were learning from home, Newman said. And with full online learning, the district would explore the option of providing dinners to students as well.

Newman said Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, which were waived at the end of the spring 2020 semester, would still be required. Mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the question of standardized tests for all 50 states will fall to the federal Department of Education. The state, on the other hand, will make decisions regarding its accreditation standards. Newman said those questions have been posed on a series of calls with local school districts and the state’s education department.

“During our call, the state was more willing to work with our divisions on accreditation. We did not get that same sense that SOL’s would be waived as they were in spring of last year,” Newman said.

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