In-Person, Online, Hybrid? Schools Decide, And There's No Perfect Choice

Aug 13, 2020

Reporter Bridget Manley's son completes a lesson on an iPad.
Credit Bridget Manley

Back-to-school time has never been like this.  As reports emerge of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in children, local school systems have made tough choices and even changed plans to keep children safe and educated. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

Scroll down the page for a list of links to local schools' reopening plans...  

Nicolle Drugo, due to the pandemic, now a homeschooling mother of two.
Credit Nicolle Drugo

Nicolle Drugo and her husband Scott were just like a lot of other parents when the pandemic shut down schools in mid-March. 

NICOLLE DRUGO: At first it really didn’t hit me. When it really started to hit me was when they started to try and school at home.

Drugo and her husband have two daughters. At first it felt like a mini-vacation. But as reality began to set in, she realized how privileged her family was. Reliable internet, devices and the ability to stay home helped the family transition to “crisis learning,” and she began to worry about the families who didn’t have those luxuries.

DRUGO: What about the kids who don’t have devices? What about the kid who don’t have a parent at home that speaks English? What about the kid who’s autistic?

Drugo’s thoughts and fears have been on the minds of every school board member, teacher, staff member and parent since the pandemic started, and highlights the incredible weight that schools systems take on while educating America’s children.

And as each system weighs the pros and cons of reopening, they must each measure the risk of kids who might fall between the cracks with the risks of a possible outbreak of the disease.

Kids wave to teachers on the last day of school in May.
Credit Bridget Manley

Until just the last week or two, many school systems planned to start the fall semester with both digital learning and in-person/digital hybrids.  But now many public schools systems have pivoted to mostly online platforms -- with some exceptions.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools made the call in mid-July to shift to having most children remain at home for the fall.  They made exceptions for children, for example, who are in English-learning programs or with disabilities that require in-person learning.  

Deb Fitzgerald is a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board.
Credit Deb Fitzgerald

DEB FITZGERALD: What folks are likely thinking is ‘oh my goodness, it’s going to be like it was in April.’ And it’s not. It’s not. Crisis schooling and distanced education are different.

Deb Fitzgerald is member of the Harrisonburg City School Board. She says the city has been planning for the possibility of online learning since the pandemic began. 

FITZGERALD: The idea of needing very suddenly, with almost no warning, to have to flip the switch on being in the classroom, and in some ways not even allowed to return to your building and your room to get the stuff you need to do - you know, to get to teach - this is a very, very different starting place.

Fitzgerald says that the school board made the decision in July to go almost all-virtual based on current trends the virus has taken, and the uncertainty with how children react to and spread the virus. HCPS knew that many families in its system would need extra help for the plan to work.  So they have been sending buses with super hotspot high speed internet to neighborhoods where most families might not have a connection.  They’re also are making plans to help families with daycare options.

FITZGERALD: The faculty, the staff in our system, are so creative and so committed to their students, that I’d like parents to just take a pause and say, ‘OK, I really wasn’t so happy with the way things turned out in the spring.’ I don’t think we were either. We were all scared and we were doing things quickly, you know, building the plane as it was taking off the ground. But we’re different now, right? It’s different. We know a little bit more about what it’s going to look like, and we are building something with the hope of returning to the classroom, to face-to-face instruction, socially distanced, as soon as the conditions permit us to.

Rockingham County schools also pivoted to a mostly online format in August, and Albemarle will also be mostly online with a few in-person exceptions.

Karen Whetzel, Chair of the Shenandoah County School Board.
Credit Karen Whetzel

An earlier version of this story reported that Shenandoah County will have a hybrid learning model for the fall.  Wednesday, Aug. 12, the school board decided to go all online for instruction.

Karen Whetzel is chairman of the Shenandoah County School Board. She says they pushed back the start date to offer teachers more training for online learning, and they are leaving the door open to switch back to fully online if necessary.

WHETZEL: There’s so many diverse opinions, and every day we get multiple emails, ranging from ‘you need to open fully no matter what the Governor and the CDC says,’ and then some who don’t want us to open at all, and do everything virtually.

Meanwhile, other parents have decided to take schooling into their own hands, and homeschool for the first time. Drugo is one of those parents, and they have partnered with another family to co-teach each others’ children.

An elementary school's playground at an is marked "closed."
Credit Bridget Manley

DRUGO: We said we are going to commit to this for one year. ‘Everyone on board with that? Yup.’ I looked at Tony (another parent) and I said, ‘you wanna split science with me? Because if you’re doing math and I’m doing social studies, that ties in really well.’ Right? So, kind of keeping with that ‘unschooling’ kind of feeling, of learning through experience.

But Drugo and her family partners are among the fortunate ones in an uncertain time.

Local Schools
Albemarle Co.
Amherst Co.
Augusta Co.
Buckingham Co.
Buena Vista
Charlottesville
Clarke Co.
Culpeper Co.
Fluvanna Co.
Frederick Co. 
Grant Co.
Greene Co. 
Hampshire Co.
Hardy Co.

Harrisonburg
Lexington
Louisa Co.
Madison Co.
Nelson Co.
Orange Co.
Page Co.
Pendleton Co.
Rappahannock Co.
Rockbridge Co.
Rockingham Co.
Shenandoah Co.
Staunton
Warren Co.
Waynesboro
Winchester