Roanoke County and Education in the Age of COVID

by James C. Sherlock

I subscribe to the Roanoke Times because I find it by far the best regional newspaper in Virginia. It produces local reporting that the rest of us can only envy.

I was drawn to two stories in the past week.

The first, on June 21 by Alison Graham, revealed only 2/3 of residents of Roanoke County have broadband access.

Roanoke County’s Tentative Plan

The second, by Claire Mitzel today revealed the school system’s tentative plan:

“Southwest Virginia’s second-largest school system on Thursday unveiled its plan to return to school in August, which will involve daily in-person instruction for pre-K through second grade students and twice-a-week in-person instruction for third through 12th graders. Roanoke County’s plan is based on the state being in Phase 3.”

The plan is preliminary, but the article reported that the School Board seemed to support its broad outline and will vote on a final plan July 2.

“Third through 12th grade students will be split into two groups under the plan to attend at 50% capacity. One group will attend school on Mondays and Thursdays; the other group will attend Tuesdays and Fridays. Families with multiple children will attend on the same schedule.”

“Parents can opt for 100% remote learning. … Face coverings will be required for middle and high school students.”

“Elementary students will have 40 minutes of recess each day, and lunch will be served in the classroom. Because students will be spending more time in the same classroom, schools will dismiss an hour early to give teachers planning time. Middle and high schools may dismiss an hour early, too.”

“Individualized Education Plans will be followed and vulnerable learners’ needs will be prioritized.”

Even this plan is contingent upon parents helping with transportation.

The Roanoke County School Board members are good people. The Superintendent is a good man doing what he thinks is the best he can with the difficulties his system faces.

What becomes of disadvantaged children?

My concern in all of this is focused on the threat to the futures of children already disadvantaged by their home situations, personal troubles and various learning disabilities.

If school year 2020-2021 is a washout for them academically and yet they are socially promoted based on false but unmeasured expectations for remote learning and alternate schedules, most will never recover.

I have no idea why we have not heard from the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the NAACP or other advocates for the poor on this issue. Based on their websites, they have not taken a position.

I tried UVa’s Curry School of Education, and found nothing on that website either. That school is trying hard to help teachers with remote learning and alternative schedule tips. And good for them.

As far as I can tell the Curry School hasn’t mentioned that neither works for most poor children.

Roanoke County’s Options

I communicated with both the superintendent and the school board in Roanoke County just ahead of last night’s meeting.

I recommended either opening the schools 100% or leaving them closed because of what I consider the false options offered by remote learning and alternative schedules.

I don’t know what that county will ultimately do here.

Neither do they, but the problem is very hard and they are pretty far down the road to an alternative schedules and remote learning plan.

They have not yet heard from parents after today’s Roanoke Times story.

 Remote Learning

One-third of Roanoke County residents don’t have broadband access. Some of those with access can’t afford it.

The wild card uncontrollable by the superintendents is the home situation. Many parents are not equipped by education or their own troubles or work schedules or absent fathers or all four to help at home with remote learning.

Alternative Schedules

I have some experience as a middle school classroom teacher. Simply put, I can’t imagine successfully playing the teacher’s role in the current Roanoke County plan.

Two in-person instruction days with only half the kids having participated successfully in the three remote learning days and even less having done the remote learning off-line assignments will prove unsustainable quickly and will build over time.

Guidelines and Waivers of Importance to Parents

A big part of the issues with the 2020-2021 school year are the federal and state waivers in place. These have not been reported.


Students impacted by school closures due to the pandemic were authorized to bypass standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. Look for attempts to get that waiver renewed in 2020-2021.

If so, parents will have no idea how their school is measuring up in teaching their children.


  • Any remedial services provided in the 2020 fall term must be offered outside of the regular instructional day.
  • Local school divisions were relieved of end-of-year assessment requirements for early intervention reading services and algebra readiness intervention services in 2019-2020.
  • The Superintendent of Public Instruction will identify a new label for accreditation (“accreditation waived”) and thus waive accreditation for each public school for the 2020-2021 school year based on data from 2019-2020;
  • Local school boards were relieved of the requirements to administer Standards of Learning end-of-course and end-of-grade assessments and the alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities for the 2019-2020 school year. No local school board shall be required to certify it has administered an alternative assessment in 2019-2020.

Face shields vs. masks

Requiring most children to wear masks on the bus and in school is the current standard.

Three University of Iowa infectious-disease doctors and hospital epidemiologists recently suggested in a Journal of the American Medical Association article that face shields may be a better option than masks for the general public in community settings, and some of their peers agree with them. From that article:

  • “Face shields require no special materials for fabrication and production lines can be repurposed fairly rapidly. Numerous companies, including Apple, Nike, GM, and John Deere, have all started producing face shields. These shields can be made from materials found in craft or office supply stores. Thus, availability of face shields is currently greater than that of medical masks.”
  • “Face shields offer a number of advantages. While medical masks have limited durability and little potential for reprocessing, face shields can be reused indefinitely and are easily cleaned with soap and water, or common household disinfectants. They are comfortable to wear, protect the portals of viral entry, and reduce the potential for autoinoculation by preventing the wearer from touching their face.”
  • “People wearing medical masks often have to remove them to communicate with others around them; this is not necessary with face shields. The use of a face shield is also a reminder to maintain social distancing, but allows visibility of facial expressions and lip movements for speech perception.”

CDC initially ruled out the use of face shields for any purpose but medical use. Now the nation has enormous capacity that does not depend upon foreign materials in manufacture and offers adult and child-sized face shields in lot sizes from 5 to multiples of 1,000 at costs of about $2.50 each in lot sizes of 100.

I have asked CDC to consider the alternative on the use of face shields instead of masks in schools and they have agreed to do so.


I also sent the same school officials recommendations on how to ameliorate the busing problem. In busing, the perfect – six feet distance – will prove the enemy of good enough. As Kerry discussed here yesterday, many schools don’t have nearly enough buses or drivers to meet those regulations.

I have offered some suggestions to enable changing that rule.

  • Temperature check before boarding. Requiring each child to have her temperature taken before boarding the bus is a good idea that can work, but will require an aide garbed in PPE to ride each bus for that purpose.
  • Plastic barriers between seats. Putting up plastic shields between seats like we see in businesses now is currently illegal in many places because it interferes with the driver’s ability to monitor the children. Perhaps any such laws can be modified by executive order if the aides described above are onboard. Those shields could enable one child in every seat.
  • Fresh air on bus. Requiring some level of window openings to maintain fresh air flow will help. Install rain shields. The children are dressed for cold weather.

With those changes in place the bus capacities will double and busing will prove a much more viable option. I will ask CDC to comment on these as well as the shields v. masks issue.

Is Reduced Demand for Busing being polled?

Many more parents will drive their children to and from school under COVID conditions, so schools must make accommodations for that increased traffic flow.

It is hard to predict how much of this will happen, so schools should poll the parents and attempt to find out. Increased drop offs will reduce the demand on buses and the routes and schedules can be adapted to the new demand.

Consider increasing the radius of allowable walkers. Years ago when my kids were in elementary school in Virginia Beach, I thought the radius was unnecessarily small. Those rules will need to be tailored to each school.

Tough Call

I sent two emails to school superintendents and some school boards, including Roanoke County. The first provided the actual CDC school guidelines instead of the flawed Virginia versions and the second was on face shields and busing.

Both were well received by the superintendent and school board of Roanoke County, but the plan was too far along to change by last night.

I notified them of the face shields questions I posed to CDC, and I intend to pose the busing questions above to the same organization.

My initial contact with CDC was promising. A man from CDC called me at home within an hour and said he wanted the answer on face shields as well. His wife is a teacher.

School Boards and superintendents have been dealt a bad hand. There is certainly no perfect solution until vaccines are widely available, and there may be no good solution in some school districts until then.

The poor, as usual, are disproportionately vulnerable.

I wish all of them well.

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39 responses to “Roanoke County and Education in the Age of COVID

  1. Nine students on the bus is the rule. Ideally, this means that 1/5 of students can be picked up each day. Try to figure out which kids on what days can be picked up each day and at the same time keep six feet apart in the classroom. God bless the districts tackling this endeavor.

  2. And further punishment for the systems that optimized their bus systems to do two trips per bus each morning then again in the afternoon. They did that by shifting the start and end times of elementary, middle and high.

    From what I’m seeing – preK to 3 is going to get prioritized with ESL and Title kids next and high school will be largely virtual.

    I do not think internet is the big killer it’s made out to be but one solutio might be satellite schools at locations that do have or will be given internet. Community centers, fire stations and other perhaps even churches… wouldn’t that be a kick?

    • It is a good idea. A few versions of this were tried in the spring. The down side beyond the solvable technical and equipment issues as far as setting them up is that the kids would have to be supervised and wear their masks or shields.

      Another version: Walkers only. The old one-room schoolhouse. Just kidding.

        • The highways are flooded with those.

          • Yep – but this is also internet for the rural and low-income as well as in-person instruction for the ages that really need it.

            Essentially a modern version of that “one room schoolhouse”

          • The needs of the schools are a way to employ more people to do secondary support work for the schools in areas that do not require full-up teaching credentials.

            They are often referred to as “para” educators and do a wide variety of support roles to even include some instruction.

            For all the hooray about the Feds bailing out businesses, this ought to be a primary focus to get the schools adequately funded to deal with this pandemic – and it has the side benefit of helping the localities that primarily fund them that have lost revenues.

            A win-win. If anything is as important (or more) than having restaurants and amusement parks open up again – this has to be it.

            We have thousands of “laboratories” across the country in individual school districts – each of which will try to figure out what works and what does not- logistically and educationally – and in time, all that “shotgun” innovation will bear fruit as to the better/proven ways to go forward.

            The pandemic is a threat, a challenge – and an opportunity – a mandate to change and adapt.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    You will be surprised by some of poor and underserved students and families. They are enormously resilient and innovative. They will find a way to further the education of their children and it will be off the radar and unmeasurable as it always has been.

  4. Another wrinkle in this is our local teachers say they don’t have childcare for their children, and don’t see how they can return to work.

  5. That was a strong school system when my wife taught there in the early and mid 80s. She was very unhappy about our move to Richmond, largely not wanting to leave the principal she had then. Sounds like it is still well managed.

  6. It will be interesting to see what happens with the bus situation. Undoubtedly, many parents will decide to drive their kids to school themselves. And what chaos that will be if the traffic management isn’t handled as well! It’s tough to plan for that, though, not knowing parents’ intentions ahead of time.

    • I have pointed that out to every school superintendent in the state and recommended they survey parents and make preparations for:
      – a very large number of drop-offs and pickups – (a physical logistics issue)
      – a greatly reduced number of bus riders (a good thing).

      The physical arrangements for the increase in parent vehicles will vary school-to-school.

  7. James
    Just a word on alternative schedules in a high school setting. I did teach for several years under an alternate day block schedule. This meant that the class would meet for 2 days one week and for 3 days the next week and so forth. It was a two hour block which had both pro’s and con’s. There was an hour long lunch period each day during which the math department offered a tutoring lab. This was more akin to what the students would experience if they went on to college and seemed to work well for the majority of the students in the school.

    • Tom, I appreciate that input.

      Can I assume that the students were in school all day every day but had extended sessions in each subject on alternate days rather that 50 minutes each day?

      If so, that is really not the situation we are in here.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Block scheduling whether is it alternating A/B days or year long classes crammed into a semester are obsolete now. This form of scheduling is 40 years old. The world has changed. Students do not have the attention span for 90 minute classes. They do have the attention span for Tic Tok. You need to look at this social media application. It is all the proof you need for the attention span of today’s youth.

      Decades of data support that everyday contact with the teacher in smaller chunks of time and smaller classes improves student learning across all sub groups.

      The problem is that education is massive institution that requires a generation of time to move in defined directions.

      We are out of time. Public education has had 150 years in Virginia to get it right. How much more time should we give the bureaucrats of this monolith?

      • well… 150 years – a moving target – as society changes and attention spans take a hit… but you being an educator has the upper hand on opinion here!

        Some say public education has failed to achieve what it was designed to do – or some version of that.

        I ask, if that is true – then why hasn’t the private sector filled that gap?

        what is holding the private sector back? money from taxpayers who’d rather pay private schools rather than public schools?

        what about all those who pay taxes but have no kids in school? Should that not have to pay taxes for schools anymore or if they do, have some say in where the money goes and for what?

      • “Block scheduling whether is it alternating A/B days or year long classes crammed into a semester are obsolete now. This form of scheduling is 40 years old. The world has changed. Students do not have the attention span for 90 minute classes. They do have the attention span for Tic Tok. You need to look at this social media application. It is all the proof you need for the attention span of today’s youth.”

        Excellent point. One that is frightening if true, and irreversible. Fortunately, the Success Academies seem to have overcome this obstacle. Indeed, the Success Academies likely turn it to the kid’s learning advantage daily. How?

        • The answer most likely lies in how Success Academy classroom learning protocols are designed to constantly break up the “the block” into small high tempo working kid groups that collectively and interactively work on real (or simulated) interactive life projects and/or stories, seeking solutions and insights, all interspersed with micro tests / challenges, including much back & forth verbal expression and exchange.

  8. And… I still point out that this is tremendous opportunity for private sector schools…that have the advantage of being able to take smaller pieces of the issue and solve them rather than owning all of them and solutions can conflict.

    This is also a tremendous opportunity for self-employment as a tutor and for innovations like “micro” schools – private schools that specialize in one or two grades or subjects…

    • I assume some of the hundreds of public school teachers who will resign in each state over unfulfillable expectations (the worst part from a professional standpoint) and 16 hour work days (the worst part from a family standpoint) stretched to include all new lesson plans alternating from in-person to online will start businesses to fill some of the gaps.

      But that won’t help this fall.

      • The public school systems are in danger of breaking from changing things they have no control over and limits on resources and things they can do.

        We’re seeing “kludges” being developed… literally “close enough for government work”. 😉

        and a tremendous opportunity for innovation and creativity.

        why we are clinging to a public education model that many have also condemned is beyond me.

        People are expecting way more change from a system that has evolved to a state where change is hard, takes forever, and never really gets to the point it was intended to get to – and that is especially true with regard to economically disadvantaged kids whose biggest sin was to be born to parents who are economically disadvantaged.

  9. If all of America’s graduate schools of education shut their doors in a paroxysm of self-criticism, the nation and its school systems would be far better off.

    All one needs to do is try to read
    to agree with that proposition.

    Teachers will do the right thing for the right reasons. “Educators”, eyeball deep into the social theories of Herbert Marcuse, not so much.

  10. Yes with the alternating A/B day scheduling model they were in school every day but not in most classes every day. Also JWW was correct that it was 90 minute blocks but it was not 40 years ago. It was instead about 2005 and there may still be some districts in VA using this model. The 90 minute block did work out quite well for the lab sciences. The point is that the students were working on their A/B classes at home on the days that the class did not meet and this was without any distance learning. It also helped them to learn to manage their time and to plan out their studying. The problem with the model in our district was that the teachers did not have a daily planning period during their in-school contract hours.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Indeed it was forty year ago Mr. Banford. I have a copy of Frederick County MD public schools handbook for block scheduling. The document from 1994 cites multiple sources. The idea emerged from Massachusetts circa 1980. Virginia was slow to catch on. Loudoun County finally caved in back in 1997. Block scheduling is totally obsolete. The mindset and attention span of modern youths will continue to underperform under block scheduling. Decade after decade of data on student learning support small classes and 45-50 minutes increments of class time. Dewey had it right all along. I remember one of the driving factors of adopting block scheduling was to limit the number of times students transitioned from classes to reduce discipline incidents between classes. The problem of planning was resolved. A days I taught 3 classes 1 planning period. B days I taught 3 classes and performed lunch duty. Underperforming students simply did nothing on the off class day. That is why it was necessary to compress all work and remediation into the every other day 90 minute block. I know what I am talking about. 27 year veteran teacher and department chair at a nationally ranked high school. I had access to institutional knowledge that most teachers and parents have not the foggiest idea of.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Michael Apple’s book Ideology and Curriculum had a major influence on the adoption of block scheduling and the pedagogy that surrounds it. Student achievement has remained flat since the publishing of Apple in 1979. Apple had it all wrong and he was a “out of the closet” Marxist and damned proud of it too. We have been taken hook line and sinker by the left in the world of education. The rabbit hole has no end or purpose.

  11. I’m sure this is totally impractical but are we at the point where with transportation and staffing issues the concept of individual schools is past its time.

    Maybe we have a few exceptional teachers who provide instruction to all students on a citywide/countywide basis with uniform, professionally scripted lesson plans disseminated electronically. Instead of the expense of the physical plant for small separate schools funds are redirected to providing high speed access and modern laptops to all students. Employ and pay generously teams of well qualified teachers for each subject – the concept of one instructor for a full semester of a subject matter seems dated to me. (Disclosure my mom was an English teacher at old Binford Jr. High in Richmond).

    No need for hundreds of teachers with varying talent and abilities and the attendant expense of vast, far flung separate campuses. It’ll be a tough sell past the GA and VEA, I’m sure.

    OK gang, fling your darts and I’ve put my body armor on.

    • no darts from me.

      But the news today says that Fairfax county teachers are not real supportive of getting back to “in-person” teaching.

    • It is time for out-of-the-box thinking. Yours is as valid as anyone else’s.

      I am an old school teacher – my experiences date to 1966 when I taught special education math classes at both ends – the sweat hogs and the classes of what we would now call gifted students.

      Then my experience was updated by 5 years as a volunteer remedial math teacher between 2010 and 2015. Both of those were in middle school.

      I taught remedial math to 5th graders between 2010 and 2015 who could not multiply, and thus could not divide and were completely lost in 5th grade math. The school system curriculum indicated that they would learn to multiply in the 3rd grade.

      My students were completely lost in 5th grade math and would have been lost in any math class for the rest of their 5-12 school experience. The teachers of the 5th grade classes to whom I provided assistance asked their classes in September if they would like special assistance in multiplication and more than half of them raised their hands.

      I found that small group in-person instruction – the smaller the group the better – worked where large class in-person instruction had failed.

      There is nothing in my experience that leads me to believe that remote learning will work for kids who do not have the right basic skills or home environment to learn via the internet.

      I was pretty successful in bringing kids to the level in math that at least they could follow along in their 5th grade lessons. If I could not have seen my students’ faces and tested them individually in remedial sessions, I would not have had any chance of bringing them to that point.

      The home environment of some of the public school students is so dysfunctional relative to learning that online learning would be a death sentence to any hopes for a better life for the children.

      By the way, my sessions on multiplication tables were 10 minute sessions during regular class time in which I had a table set up in the classroom and brought 5 kids at a time over to my table to test them on whatever times table I had assigned them in the last session.

      5 minutes of my session was my quick fire query and individual student response and 5 minutes of timed quizzes on say the 5x tables. I then assigned them the 6x tables for the next session.

      The timed tests exposed those who learned their multiplication tables from those who were counting on their fingers.

      In most years I started with about 20 kids and “graduated” all but one or two of them in about three or four weeks.

      I don’t see any of that happening in the plan you offer.

      Still doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit, but it would need to be supplemented with individual instruction.

      • My idea would obviously only be intended for the “masses” and I’m not sure I really know what I mean by that. Perhaps for the “mainstream” teachable (and interested) student.

        There will always be those few requiring an IEP and a dedicated cadre of personal instructors/tutors for them.

        I’m grasping here for ideas to effectively teach the masses more efficiently because I sense what we are doing may need some fresh thinking. More money doesn’t seem to be the answer other than for adequately compensating my “super” teachers.

        Many years ago (’70s) I was chairman of a group in Fairfax County that tried to introduce some forward thinking into the schools but it didn’t get very far for a number of reasons, among which were paucity of funding and parental apathy.

  12. Mr. Whitehead
    Congratulations on your recent retirement as 27 years is quite a long time. We may be speaking past each other. I did not say that block scheduling did not date back 40 years but only that my experience with it was much more recent. In fact, a quick google search indicates that based upon a September 2012 study almost all of the public high schools in Virginia were on some form of a block scheduling model. The most prevalent was the A/B alternating day block at 41%. Next was the four-by-four block model at 36%. Only 15% of the high schools were on a traditional model with the balance using some type of hybrid. My experience was with both the A/B and the four-by-four. Who would not have loved to have had small classes and I do lament the short attention span of today’s students. If time allows, I will try to find some updated data on the use of block scheduling in Virginia’s public high schools.

  13. The teachers’ union in Roanoke County has none of the health concerns expressed by the unions in Fairfax County?

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