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IW students will be virtual for two weeks

All Isle of Wight County school students will temporarily move to virtual learning for two weeks after winter break in order to limit the potential spread of COVID-19, Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton announced Dec. 16.

Students who were on the division’s in-person schedule will follow the remote learning model from Jan. 4 through Jan. 15. Students on the in-person continuum are slated to return to in-person hybrid learning on Jan. 19, as Jan. 18 is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

In a nearly 1,000-word letter shared with families, Thornton urged the school community to “use this time cautiously” to ride out potential spikes in coronavirus cases as a result of holiday travel and gatherings. The goal of the decision is to limit the spread of COVID-19 within the community, thereby allowing schools to stay open for those who would like to have the opportunity for in-person learning. “Participating in extended trips or get-togethers of more than ten people will defeat the purpose of these efforts,” Thornton said.

In September, the school board voted to allow Thornton to make decisions for the rest of the year regarding opening and closing schools based on health data related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The division has about 5,500 students.

The superintendent also praised students, parents and staff who are participating in the in-person learning track for following the division’s safety measures and protocols. He said those measures are working.

“While there have been some cases of COVID-19 in our schools, the individuals testing positive contracted the virus outside of school and we have had no cases of spread between students,” Thornton said. “Fortunately, the mitigation we have in place (social distancing, plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizer dispensers, masks worn while in the building) are working and preventing the spread of the virus in our schools.”

The superintendent said since Thanksgiving, the division has seen an increase in virus cases but a greater increase in the number of people who have required quarantine due to close contact with someone who was positive for COVID-19.

In addition, Thornton said, the recent health data is concerning. As of Dec. 16, the community number of new cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days was 527.7 — and 200 cases per 100,000 is considered the highest burden. With a 73% increase in the last seven days and the uptick in quarantines in schools, “I am worried the longer winter break will have a more dramatic impact on our schools.”

One of the most significant outcomes of the superintendent’s decision affects athletics. Thornton said all athletic activities are on hold until Jan. 19. The division said it will monitor updates from the Virginia High School League that may affect programs at Smithfield High and Windsor High. The division said high schools will share updates with student athletes and parents as more information is available.

For elementary school students in Pre-K through third grade who were on the virtual learning track, there are no changes to schedules or routines. Students in these grade levels on the in-person plan will still have the same teacher and follow the same daily learning schedule as their classmates. The live virtual instruction is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Overall, these students will receive a minimum of six hours each week of direct, interactive learning with their teacher and two hours per week of asynchronous learning, where they will be expected to access digital class materials on their own. Teachers will schedule their own reading conferences, small group instruction and special education services.

Fourth- and fifth-grade elementary students, and sixth-graders at Westside Elementary who are on the virtual track will not see any schedule changes. In-person students in this group will have nine hours of direct, interactive instruction and two days a week of asynchronous learning. Students will have the same teacher.

Middle and high school students in grades 6 through 12 who are on the virtual track also will retain the same schedule. In-person students in this group will follow a temporary schedule, but teachers and class start times will remain the same. Remediation sessions scheduled for Jan. 8 or Jan. 15 will be virtual.

Finally, school officials said free meals will continue to be available for all students. Isle of Wight schools will resume Friday meal distribution on Jan. 8 at Smithfield High, Georgie Tyler Middle and Carrsville Elementary from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Each meal kit will have five days of breakfast and lunch for students.