Forty-four percent of high schoolers are failing; RCES staffer tests positive for virus

On the heels of Rappahannock County High School Principal Jimmy Swindler searching for ways to reduce an estimated 44 percent of students currently failing due to incomplete or late work, it was announced this week that an elementary school staffer has tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Welcome to schooling in the age of COVID-19.

In an email to teachers last Thursday, Swindler reminded teachers that “what we all have to understand is that if we move forward with a 40+% failure rate it won’t be long before the good folks from the VDOE’s School Improvement Team come knocking at our door, and I am pretty sure that NONE of us wish to see that scenario unfold.”

Swindler suggested giving students “reboot days” to catch up on overdue assignments and incomplete work. “Hold off on new instruction and do all you can with your students to get them caught up, which will in turn improve their grades,” he wrote.

“Late next week we will reassess where we are RE our overall student performance and then move forward with decisions on grades/grade reports for this quarter.”

In an email to the Rappahannock News, Swindler denied any allegations that the RCPS administration has encouraged teachers to change grades. 

“That is NOT one of the strategies we discussed,” Swindler wrote.

Alluding to the pandemic which has exerted unprecedented pressure on teachers and students, Swindler continued: “I think it’s safe to say that the environment itself constitutes an ‘extenuating circumstance’ RE justifying the need to give students some extra assistance. We are all in this together and the problems we are having are being repeated all across the state.” 

Swindler added that in Zoom calls with school administrators and principals he has heard that “EVERYONE is having the same challenges with remote learning.”

RCPS made the decision in August to resume school on a hybrid model which combines two days of in-person classes with three days of remote learning.

One teacher who wished to remain anonymous told this newspaper that even in a normal school year it is difficult to strike the delicate balance between leniency—accepting late work without penalty, for example—and holding students to a rigorous standard. 

“As teachers we have this duality where on one hand we want to teach the kids content and encourage them to try to learn and on the other hand we want to teach them to be model adults, which is turning things in on time,” the teacher said.

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The teacher added that earlier in the semester school administrators had asked faculty to put zeros on students’ report cards for incomplete work thinking it would “wake them up,” but now it seems they need to try a different approach. “We’re aiming to be flexible with the kids and not discourage them from trying.”

Superintendent Shannon Grimsley agreed. “As trauma-informed educators,” Grimsley said in an interview, “we can presume that this time is traumatic for students and their families. Seeing a zero on a report card is reflective of challenges with the remote learning model, not necessarily of teachers or their students.”

And as for the students who have done all their work and managed to maintain high marks throughout, Swindler and Grimsley emphasized that they would not be affected. “This is not about penalizing anyone, it’s about supporting all of our students through this incredibly difficult time.”

New COVID-19 case

On Monday night RCPS sent an email and automated voice message to parents alerting them that an administrative employee tested positive over the weekend. The staff member was not on school premises on Monday and all areas with which the individual had been in direct contact have been sanitized.

“At this time, due to the procedures and physical distancing protocols implemented by RCPS, it has been determined after thoroughly investigating locally that there were no close contacts with any students and very limited contact with staff members, and therefore no known high risk of transmission of COVID-19 at the elementary school,” wrote Superintendent Shannon Grimsley in her letter to parents.

Staff members who came into close contact with the individual have been asked to quarantine and await further instructions from the Virginia Department of Health. The Rappahannock Rapidan Health Department has opened an investigation to contact trace and determine if any other individuals will need to quarantine. 

The VDH defines close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. The VDH provides resources and information about COVID-19 at www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/