Teachers across Pittsylvania County Schools returned to their buildings and classrooms on Tuesday to begin preparing for the new school year, but not all were greeted with a collection of masks, gloves, wipes and other cleaning supplies that will become a mainstay of in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jessica Jones, the president of the Pittsylvania Education Association, said teachers at some of the county’s schools received these items on their first day back while teachers at other schools did not.
“It’s like, ‘You knew Aug. 4 was coming,’” she said, indicting the school division for not being adequately prepared. “That could have been something that people had in their room when they showed up.”
Students are scheduled to return to class on Aug. 20.
Instead, the inconsistent delivery of personal protective equipment — commonly known as PPE — and cleaning products, she added, gives credence to the teacher union’s recommendation that the school year start online.
She would like the school division to prove it has many of the small details — like distributing PPE to teachers — taken care of before the school year starts. So far, Jones said, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“The details make the difference,” she said.
Pittsylvania County Schools Superintendent Mark Jones and Associate Superintendent for Support Services Robin Haymore did not respond to the Danville Register & Bee’s repeated requests for comments in response to the education association’s concerns.
Mark Jones told the Register & Bee in July the school division planned to spend at least $200,000 on PPE. At the time, he called it “a very conservative estimate as we open schools.”
Part of the district’s reopening plan includes providing two washable and reusable cloth face coverings for all staff members, in addition to at least one cloth face covering for each student.
Also in July, Mark Jones said the district had already purchased 30,000 paper masks; cleaning product dispensers for classrooms; plexiglass screens for staff members like speech therapists and others who work closely with students; and storage containers for each school to move furniture outside in an attempt to create space for social distancing in classrooms.
On Tuesday, Jessica Jones learned many of those plexiglass barriers had not yet been installed in the front desk areas of schools.
That, combined with the lack of PPE and cleaning supplies on hand for teachers, gave her pause when considering the state of the district’s reopening plan.
She credited the administration for devising a reopening plan that is “in lockstep” with guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education, but the rollout of the plan on the very first day was uninspiring.
“[The plan is] easy to do wrong if the details aren’t right,” she said. “It might look good on paper, but what does it look like when it’s in 3D? It’s all about the actions and the implementation and what that looks like. What does it look like when you press play and things are in motion?”
The current reopening plan allows K-third grade, along with English learners and special education students, to attend in-person classes four days per week while all other grades attend two days per week. Students can also choose fully- remote learning.
During the school day, teachers will be expected to clean in between each of their classes, but Jessica Jones said that might cut down on the time available to enforce the mask and physical distancing requirements while students move about in the halls.
Jessica Jones said part of the first day for teachers included viewing a live-streamed message from Mark Jones that included, among other topics, a portion on why virtual learning wasn’t ideal for the school division as a whole.
“He did mention that virtually is not beneficial for our particular locality because of issues with the internet,” Jessica Jones recalled. “Even if you could get WiFi, you maybe couldn’t manage to get the internet because of the connectivity issues.”
Under normal circumstances, Jessica Jones said teachers would obviously much rather prefer to meet with students face-to-face, in part because it was realized at the end of last year that many students were not learning as well virtually. However, she added, if all-virtual learning isn’t an option, the district must find suitable ways to keep everybody safe during in-person instruction.
“You want it to be right and just the first time because with what we have as far as the current societal issue with the pandemic, some things you just don’t want to get wrong,” she said. “There’s no do-over when you’re dealing with somebody’s life.”
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