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Amherst County School Board Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon wears a mask, as many local officials are during public meetings across the commonwealth, during the board's May 14 meeting. 

“The roadmap to return.”

The phrase is how Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold is referring to a plan underway for the schools in tackling how to hold school in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. The school system of nearly 4,000 students needs a document available to the Amherst County community outlining how the division will address school operations amid the pandemic, he said.

“I don’t believe anyone has a sense of when that’s going to be,” Arnold said at the Amherst County School Board’s May 14 meeting of schools across the state reopening, later adding: “It could in August, it could be in October.”

As of Thursday morning, Amherst County had 25 cases of COVID-19 and three hospitalizations, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s website.

School officials are breaking the plan down into three phases: logistical and academic planning, transitioning students and staff back into the school setting and having contingencies in place should any more waves of the virus come back and schools have to shut down again, according to Arnold. The goal is to get the plan right, he said.

“The last thing I want to do — we have a small staff, they work really hard — but I don’t want to do this plan two or three times … we want to be measured in our work,” Arnold said.

School officials are awaiting guidelines from Gov. Ralph Northam and aim to have the plan in effect around July, he said. A committee is focusing work in six focus areas: academics, operations, finance, human resources, technology and social and emotional learning.

When schools do resume for the first time since March 13, the last school day held prior to Northam’s announcement to close schools, operations likely will factor in social distancing and if students and educators will need masks and hand sanitizer. The division also needs to review picking back up in-person learning, resuming at-home learning or some possible hybrid.

“If you’ve been in our classrooms, there’s not six feet between anything,” Arnold said in reference to social distancing. “… I’m not sure all 4,000 students can be in our buildings at the same time, at least not initially.”

The school system will host a virtual town hall meeting and invite parents, residents and educators to take part and offer input prior to the plan’s adoption, Arnold said.

“This is going to be complex and difficult work,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”

Technology is crucial in a time of distance learning and school officials believe 35% of its students don’t have access to high-speed, reliable internet, Arnold said. His goal is eventually to have a fiber network going into every home in the county, which he added will improve businesses and all manner of life in Amherst.

Arnold said he’s been in communication with Lit Communities, a company with a goal to bridge the digital divide across America, and this week is holding a kickoff meeting to discuss improving Amherst County’s broadband capabilities. He aims for federal stimulus relief money of about $821,000 to potentially go toward that investment and the company also will look at current resources and how school buildings, all of which have fiber, can serve as community beacon points.

Since the school closures, the division has distributed more than 2,000 Chromebooks, the Amherst community donated 472 flash drives and 1,770 digital lessons were created for at-home learning in response to the pandemic. School officials said the main priority during the crisis is students’ wellbeing and academics come next. The division also had distributed about 70,000 meals overall through May 14, according to Assistant Superintendent William Wells.

School board member Amanda Wright said she has been on the receiving end as a parent of the school’s immediate response to the pandemic that made a difference for many families.

“From my point of view it was almost seamless,” Wright said. “It seemed to like we’ve been doing this forever and it was amazing.”

School board member John Grieser said he can’t understate how proud he is of how the school system stepped up during the crisis. “This is untraveled territory,” Grieser said. “… Living in a household with a teacher and seeing how they had to navigate this, I’m super proud of the teachers in Amherst County Public Schools.”

Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon also thanked Amherst educators for all their hard work during trying times.

“I’m taking one day at a time,” Liggon said. “We’ve learned a lot from this pandemic. I know I have … I think we have met the challenge in Amherst County.”

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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