Students, teachers and staff at Louisa County Public Schools kicked off a new approach to education on Aug. 13 that combines blended learning and a virtual academy.

At Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, the hand sanitizer dispensers were filled, the thermometer was ready to take people’s temperatures at the door, and new floor decals reminding occupants to maintain social distance were secured firmly to the floors. 

Inside the classrooms, teachers made sure students had their pencils, crayons, glue and paper and reviewed classroom rules. It almost seemed like a typical first day of school, except class sizes were far smaller than normal, everyone had masks on and students sat at desks spaced six feet apart.  

One teacher introduced a new rule to her students: Make eye contact when speaking to someone, and speak loudly and clearly, because masks can make it difficult for your classmates to hear you.

In Elizabeth Patrick’s fourth-grade classroom, the students filled out a questionnaire on the computer. This activity is usually completed on paper, but Patrick explained that more will be done digitally to cut down on paper and the germs it may carry. The young learners raised their hands when they had a question, and Patrick would go over to assist them. 

In another classroom a few doors down, April Whipp’s fifth-grade class was entirely virtual. She stood in an empty classroom that, on any normal first day of school, would be filled with students chatting excitedly. This year, however, it was empty save for Whipp in the front of her classroom talking animatedly with her students on her laptop screen. 

She also went over class rules, asking her students what they thought would be the best way to get her attention. 

“Should you use jazz hands to get my attention?” she asked them. 

Her class quickly vetoed that idea, giggling. 

After offering other solutions involving silly faces, her class ultimately decided that the classic hand raise would be the best way to go, with one small tweak: It was important they raised their hands, but not too high—they have to make sure their hands are in the frame of their screens, so she can see them. 

The students in the blended learning program who were in school on Aug. 13 would learn at home the next day. To help ensure access to classwork, every student was given a tablet or laptop to download assignments before leaving for home. Mobile internet stations have also been set up throughout the county. There’s also a technology hotline available for parents, in the event students experience technical difficulties. 

Though this year is anything but conventional, Superintendent Doug Straley reminded those present that his staff are accustomed to challenges. 

“We're so proud of each other in this community of how we are able to come together in the midst of crisis time and time again to make it work,” he said. “During the 2011 earthquake, this community came together to rebuild schools and recreate what schools look like … And this process has been somewhat similar.”

The first bell of school has rung, and only time will tell what the next few months will bring. Straley emphasized his commitment to transparency and assured parents and guardians that the schools community will gauge the situation on a daily basis and will continue working with the Thomas Jefferson Health District to inform protocol.

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