Virginia Beach students will find a whole new world next week if they choose to return to in-person classes for the first time since spring.
From the moment they step on a school bus in the morning until they’ve returned home in the afternoon, students will be greeted by a host of mitigation strategies aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Kindergartners, who will be required to wear masks, will be separated by plexiglass barriers attached to their tables. Their seats will also be spaced 3 feet apart and they won’t be allowed to share pens, pencils and other supplies.
The hallways now look like streets, with one-way signs on both sides and red tape dotting the middle like a median.
And when eating lunch, a table that used to seat 12 will now host only three students — giving everyone plenty of elbow room.
School leaders provided a glimpse Thursday of what students will see starting Tuesday, when 9,162 pre-K through second graders are set to return to school buildings. More grades will follow over the next two weeks. About 1,200 students with special needs already have returned.
During a tour of Red Mill Elementary School, where roughly 250 students will be in-person, officials highlighted what they are doing to keep children and staff safe amid the ongoing pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Miller, Red Mill’s principal, said they examined every part of the day — when kids are in small groups, common areas or just going to the bathroom or using a water fountain — to figure out how best to keep everyone apart.
“It has made us stop and look at every little nitty-gritty detail in what we’re doing to ensure safety for our students,” she said.
The changes will start before students even arrive at the building. School buses, which can technically fit about 66 kids, will be operating this year with significantly reduced capacity, said David Pace, the executive director for transportation for Virginia Beach schools.
Some will carry 45, but others will top out around 30, Pace said. He said the number of students taking the bus each day is down significantly, so that has helped with scheduling.
Riders will have assigned seats and will wear masks. There will be pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizers onboard. Buses will be cleared after every trip, with regular deep cleanings planned too.
For lunch — one of the few times each day children may remove their masks — some Red Mill students will eat at three tables set up on the cafeteria stage while others will eat inside classrooms or outside (when the weather allows). Students will be assigned a lunch spot for the year.
In classrooms, teachers added a desk to each table, leaving more space for one fewer student at each workstation. Each room will be stocked with cleaning supplies for both quick disinfecting and deep cleans.
In one Red Mill room Thursday, teacher Kimberly Bunn started a virtual lesson by leading kindergartners in a song around noon. A 16-ounce container of hand sanitizer stood prominently by the door.
Rooms where a teacher is leading a virtual class will look more normal, except there won’t be any children inside. The district laid off on the plexiglass in those rooms.
Signs are posted throughout the building, reminding students to wear a mask and stay home if they feel sick. There are so many such placards that school administrators hope students won’t be able to forget the rules.
Superintendent Aaron Spence said the success of the district’s mitigation strategies depends on changing human behavior, and that students will need to quickly learn the rules next week.
Miller said there are the normal start-of-school jitters that come this year, but also excitement. They’ve physically been apart from their students for so long, she said.
Virginia Beach’s plan is one of the most aggressive in the region. Most other districts in Hampton Roads opted to stay entirely virtual the first nine weeks of the school year. Spence has previously said he wanted Virginia Beach to have the flexibility to bring back students earlier if health conditions improve.
The city’s plans hinged on two health metrics — the percent of tests that come back positive and the number of new cases reported each day. Both have substantially improved since peaks in July and currently fall in the district’s yellow zone — which means a positive rate of less than 10% and fewer than 264 cases.
About 60% of the district’s approximately 67,000 students opted over the summer to come back for in-person learning this year.
Spence hopes the majority of grades will be able to return to class by Oct. 8. He believes the months of hard work his staff has put in the past several months will pay off.
“I am very confident that with the plans that we have in place, we’re going to be able to open schools safely and productively next week for those kids,” he said.
Peter Coutu, 757-222-5124, email@example.com
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