Letter to the Loudoun County School Board

To: Board Members of Loudoun County Public Schools
From: Michael Hackmer
Date: June 29, 2020

Dear Board Members:

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant debate about how public schools will operate in the 2020 to 2021 school year. At present, parents, students, educators and policy-makers are struggling with three options that have presented:

  • 100% in-school learning
  • A hybrid of part-time in school and part-time online, and
  • 100% online.

However, these three options are extremely limited, lack a plan or structure to support them and are more about solving to what has been in place instead of actually solving to the problems that exists.

Not only are there more than three options for how schools could be reopened in the Fall, none of the options presented address the three core problems in a sufficient way:

  • Provide a process for students to make-up the academic ground lost in the Spring of 2020.
  • Meet on-going student academic needs and allow students to excel.
  • Adequately address parent, teacher and staff concerns about safety due to the virus.

Significant Problems with the Three Options

1) Mass concentration of students, teachers and staff

As COVID-19 continues to ravage our country, we have learned one significant lesson: the more we allow mass groups of people to interact for prolonged periods of time, the more we spread the virus.

In fairness to the Loudoun County School Board's pre-selected options, we can't realistically have large concentrations of people in existing school buildings.

Even despite the best precautions taken, if you have three (3) to five (5) cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty, staff or other adults, you will not be able to track with certainty who had contact with who. The ending result will be a mass notification to all parents of a school and a school closure will likely occur.

The ONLY solution that makes sense for in-person learning to occur is to break up large schools into smaller pockets and distribute those students to other locations to keep the overall population and class size smaller.

2) Testing of temperatures

It is logistically unmanageable to test all students, faculty, staff and visiting adults upon entry each day. The process would take between 45 minutes to 60 minutes to start each day (accounting for late arrivals, organization and recording of results). Despite polling people on their "comfort" for temperature taking, there has been no announced plan for who would take temperature and how those results would be recorded (or if they would be recorded).

3) Mass transportation

LCPS operates and maintains a fleet of 800 school buses that transport 76,000 students (LCPS website). The maximum average headcount per bus run is 52 (Loudoun Times, September 2017) and the minimal number of runs per day is 350. However, to follow social distancing guidelines, transportation to and from one school location will require bus runs to increase. They could double the daily amount of runs or be higher. Students will be left outside to wait if a bus reaches capacity - delaying school arrival by at least 30 minutes, likely more.

Some parents will opt to provide direct transportation, however the exact number has not been determined. Regardless, the greater influx of parents conducting school drop-offs to one location will significantly increase congestion at the school - delaying student arrival.

These three factors ALONE all delay the start of a school day by 1 to 2 hours.

The ONLY reasonable option to ensure in-school / in-person learning is to break up the school population and distribute it in the surrounding community.

4) Hybrid model or 100% online learning

Requiring students to learn from home is the most untenable option available unless a student is immune compromised, has a parent in a high-risk category or there is a strong parental objection.

Previous delivery of online learning was a failure.

Without additional staffing and support, teacher hours become over-extended which significantly increasing mental and physical drain that lead to burn-out.

Students lose project-based work (learning by doing) which is more effective for building divergent thinking.

Screen-time increases strain on eye-sight and thinking, and the amount of knowledge and skill development decreases compared to in-person learning.

In short, the Hybrid Model is a recipe for academic regression, not success, and will lead to mental and physical problems for both teachers and students.

Online learning or distance learning is a great supplemental resource. However, it is not an adequate alternative for learning for students of ANY age.

5) Technology gaps, housing gaps and supervision gaps negatively impact learning equity

Not every household or family has the ability - due to income, lack of technology or lack of housing, etc – to support online learning. What’s more, there are too many households where parents cannot be home to supervise children every day.

Alternative Solutions

Key Highlights

Breaking Up Schools

  • Break up each school into smaller pods and designate classes in different locations. No school building should open at greater than 15% to 20% of originally planned capacity.
  • The main building will serve as the administrative hub and location for scientific labs, art and music. By maintaining the administrative hub at the school, there will be no reason for people to enter satellite locations for classes other than the teachers, teacher support and students. Parents can remain outside for pick-up OR students can be transported back to the main building for pick-up if necessary.
  • School to provide shuttle services to satellite facilities to reduce the need for CDL drivers. In the past, LCPS has suffered from not having enough drivers. Social distancing challenges also reduce the effectiveness of using larger buses.
  • Security at all satellite locations can be handled by one or two security guard teams. If necessary, classrooms can have electronic key card access for students and teachers and staff.
  • All nurse needs will be conducted through an online video chat. If a student needs nurse care, the student's parents will be contacted. The student will either be shuttled to the nurse at the main building or picked up from school by the parent for a doctor visit.
  • Loudoun County School Board to make a public notice asking for all available offices and buildings that can be converted into satellite campus locations. A massive public notice will bring out hundreds of available options that LCPS can consider.
  • Loudoun County School Board to appoint a Satellite Campus Committee of parents and business leaders and school officials to help identify the best locations and make recommendations.

How Classes Will Work

  • To minimize virus spread, Assembly Line Learning, the process of moving from one subject to another to another throughout a day, will need to end. Moving between rooms and locations throughout a day for teachers and students increases the likelihood of exposure to the virus. Movement also prevents containment of the virus.
  • Teachers will teach one subject to one class of not more than 10 students per day. Each class will last approximately 30 to 40 schools days.
  • All lessons, projects, field activities and assessments will be conducted with one class group, allowing students to receive more personalized learning, smaller teacher to student ratios and less disruption.
  • Food can be brought by students to eat in the classroom or outside (weather permitting). Lunches should be made available upon request for students on a daily basis. The lunches can be shuttled to satellite locations. Since cafeteria eating and buffet style eating will not be allowed, pre-packaged lunches will need to be provided to students anyway to reduce risk of contamination.
  • Online learning will be available for students who are immune compromised, have at-risk parents or whose parents object in-class learning. By limiting in-class numbers to 10 students, online students can participate with classmates online after-hours and receive instruction from the teacher and a TA.
  • Additional online access can be sold to students in other counties in Virginia for a small fee to recoup some of the cost of the satellite learning program. These students can interact with other students, but their teacher support would be more limited than Loudoun County students.
  • Loudoun County School Board to create a Committee for Online Learning that consists of parents, school officials and teachers to monitor progress and conduct meetings no fewer than 2 x per month on "What is working" and "What is not working" to assess the effectiveness of online learning for students and issues from teachers.

Teachers and Staff

  • Administrative functions will remain at the primary school building. However, IT personnel can travel to support satellite campuses as needed.
  • Without large numbers of students concentrated in one place - it makes students less likely targets for criminal activity or mass violence. What's more, security and policy patrols can be distributed to the different locations to provide protection.
  • If Teacher and staff shortages exist, recruit from past applicants and nearby school systems to ensure we have adequate support for all phases of learning.