From left to right: James Lane, John Brown, Boyd Blackley, Patricia Pugh, Vivian Wood and Kathleen Beane

James Lane, the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, toured Richmond County’s schools last Wednesday and left impressed with the facilities and the administration’s handling of COVID-19 protocols.

When Lane took the top superintendent post, he committed to visit every school district in the state. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, he’s prioritizing visits to the school systems that are offering in-person instruction.

During the walkthrough, Lane was joined by RCPS superintendent James Smith, assistant superintendent Sarah Schmidt, and members of the school board.

Lane’s mission was “to get a sense of what the safety strategies look like to keep kids learning.” 

Like all visitors, he had his temperature checked before entering Richmond County Elementary & Middle School. Lane was able to see classrooms set up for virtual learning, and Dr. Smith explained the role that the Canvas instruction system is playing in effective distance education.

Smith also outlined how RCPS is running its in-person learning with only half of students attending school each week. Lane observed some of those students in traditional classrooms and in settings including the gym and on-stage in the auditorium. 

Lane learned how the schools’ food service is handled and visited the band room where he was filled in on how the school is handling musical instruction. 

RCPS has significantly increased the number of hand sanitizing stations throughout the schools, installed more touch-free filling stations for water, and fixed the traditional water fountains so water doesn’t come out to ensure students can’t use them.  

The school system invested in plastic face shields and has on-table plexiglass barriers that allow teachers to work in a closer one-on-one arrangement with students while creating a shield between them. Schmidt explained that RCPS bought everyone a face mask and purchased all of the school supplies for students. “The goal is to cut down on sharing as much as possible,” she said. 

RCPS has invested in electrostatic misters that sanitize a room in minutes. And Lane was able to see that, at the high school, not only are the locker rooms closed but they’ve been blocked off to help ensure students remain out of the area.

Although students aren’t required to wear masks while seated at their desks, most were masked, including the elementary-age students. 

Principal Jason Strong, said thus far he’s been happy with the preparation and cooperation he’s seen from students. “Even the littlest kids know what they’re supposed to do and they’ve been doing it,” he said.

Smith explained that the “double-duty” of offering in-person and a fully remote program has been harder on staff. “But it’s given our community far more choices. And they’ve appreciated it,” he said.

“Here in Richmond County, I’ve been proud to see some the efforts they’ve put in place,” Lane said after the tour. He explained that about half of Virginia’s school districts are offering only virtual education. “And I really like the unique approach [Richmond County has] taken with giving parents a choice between [virtual and in-person] to keep kids learning no matter which modality they’ve chosen,” he said.

Lane noted other areas where RCPS is going above and beyond. For example, he said Virginia only recommends masks but Richmond County requires every child to wear one. And, “the work RCPS has done to keep class sizes small and keep kids distanced at least six feet is great,” he said.

It’s Lane’s view that how in-person versus distant learning is handled must be addressed at the community level.

“If you’re in a community that has substantial transmission, you may have to be in a virtual setting. If you’re in a community that has low or moderate transmission, we can do more in person. So, I think the circumstances in the community around transmission will define that.”

But overall, “COVID-19 is going to write the rules… Our job at the department of Ed is to support every school district no matter what choices they make,” he added.