In the past few weeks, school boards from Middlesex County to Hampton to Virginia Beach have made the call not to bring students back to buildings immediately.

But on Tuesday night, the Poquoson School Board voted to bring some students back to class two days a week on Sept. 8. The city joins just a handful of other Tidewater districts — including Isle of Wight and New Kent.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said board chair Garry Carter. “We have toiled over this to make the best and most effective decision possible to start school on Sept. 8.”

The school board voted unanimously during an in-person meeting Tuesday night to adopt Superintendent Arty Tillett’s recommendation.

Students from pre-K through third grade will come back two days a week, one group on Monday and Thursday, the second group on Tuesday and Friday. They’ll be joined by special education and English language learners.Other instruction will happen online.

Board members and Tillett said they were looking forward to bringing more students back as soon as possible, moving farther along the phased approach that Tillett presented Tuesday night.

“That is everybody’s goal,” Carter said. “Everybody’s goal in this room, right here, and most everybody’s goal I would say in the City of Poquoson, is to move as far right as possible as quickly as possible.”

Poquoson’s considerations somewhat mirror Isle of Wight, whose school board approved a similar plan last week. Previously, the board had approved a more expansive reopening that included middle school students.

Both localities have relatively low COVID-19 case counts compared to their neighbors. As of Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Health reported only 44 cases and no deaths in the city.

But both are surrounded by localities with higher counts and are located in eastern Virginia, where the Virginia Department of Health has noted substantial community transmission.

In Isle of Wight, people traveling to work at the shipyard in Newport News or shopping in neighboring cities were cited by some board members. In Poquoson, about half of district employees live outside the city.

“In Poquoson, with our size, one teacher out, two teachers out — we don’t have a way to overcome that,” Tillett said. “We don’t have extra teachers in the pipeline and we can’t just adjust for that. We are very lean in how we staff.”

Poquoson had 63 active substitute teachers at the end of last year. Only 29 have committed to returning in fall, according to a survey.

As of Monday, the district had counted 13 staff members who had a documented health condition or a family member with a health condition that would prevent returning to work. Eleven of those are teachers, about 7% of Poquoson’s teachers. The district also has three other open positions.

Beyond staffing issues, Tillett and board members cited state guidelines about physical distancing as barriers to bringing more students back right now. There just isn’t enough space in buildings.

“The way that Richmond has limited us as far as distancing — very important aspects as we’re dealing with COVID — they’ve literally limited us,” said board member Wayne Holcomb. “If we wanted to go back full-time tomorrow it cannot be done, unless we start moving walls out to make a larger building.”

Like other districts in the state, parents can choose to opt their student out of the phased return to in-person learning.

The district sent out information Wednesday to families on how they can opt for virtual learning for the entire first semester.

In a survey that was open from July 7 to July 12, right as case numbers started to spike in Hampton Roads, about 28% of parents said they were likely or extremely likely to choose a full-time virtual option.

About 61% of parents responded that they preferred a five-day a week traditional return to school over a hybrid approach.

Carter and other board members `acknowledged that the choice of a hybrid wasn’t going to make everyone happy. Christy Helsel said a few minutes after the vote she was already getting text messages from parents concerned about the decision to bring only the youngest students back.

“They are the most vulnerable,” Helsel said. “We really do need our community and our family’s help.”

Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, [email protected]


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