There’s good news out of Richmond for high school seniors: The Virginia Board of Education approved two emergency measures on Thursday to waive temporarily certain rules that would otherwise prevent students from earning high school credits for courses interrupted by the extended school closures.
These actions give Virginia school districts additional leeway to allow the class of 2020 to graduate on time and younger students to advance to the next grade.
Because of the pandemic, state board members used Zoom video-conferencing software to meet virtually on Thursday afternoon. The special meeting was called “to take action on items related to the governor’s declared state of emergency and items that if not acted upon could result in irrevocable public harm,” according to online board documents.
Following the two votes, the board heard a series of briefings on the state education department’s response to COVID-19 and learned about online resources to help educators and the public deal with the pandemic.
First, the board voted to waive the 140 clock hours of class time that are normally required to earn a standard high school credit. Second, they approved alternative ways to earn a verified credit, which is awarded when students not only complete a course successfully, but also pass the corresponding Standards of Learning (SOL) exam.
In Virginia, high school students must earn 22 standard credits and six verified credits in order to graduate with a standard diploma.
Leslie Sale, interim director of policy for the Virginia Department of Education, told board members the goal of the proposed changes was to offer “flexibility but still have accountability.”
In light of the governor’s order to close all schools statewide for the rest of the school year, the VDOE is having to “rethink some items around instruction,” she said.
“Obviously, the extended closure has prevented schools from providing the same quantity of instruction,” Sale said. “Then, we’re asking our students to adapt and learn in an ever-evolving situation. Students might not be able to demonstrate what they’re learning in the same way. We recognize that a measure of completion is going to look a little different for our students.”
In order to receive high school credit for classes taken during the closure, the new VDOE guidance states that students must somehow “demonstrate mastery” of a majority of the course content. It will be up to local school districts to decide what this looks like in practice.
“We were not overly descriptive of the definition of ‘majority’ because of the variety of different schedules out there,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane.
Lane already announced March 24 that he would relax some of the graduation requirements under his authority, so that students who were already on track to graduate this spring could do so. He said during Thursday’s meeting that he had received a lot of questions from schools about the definition of “on track.”
After some discussion, board members agreed that schools can look at student grades prior to March 13 as one indicator.
Much of the language in guidance documents was purposely broad and left specifics in the hands of school districts. “Continuity of learning will look different in every school division,” Sale said.
The board discussed at some length how to make sure students with disabilities continue to receive services in an equitable manner.
Samantha Hollins, VDOE assistant superintendent for special education and student services, said she is having “frequent conversations” with special education directors across the state.
“We’re linking them in to as much information as possible,” Hollins said, including maintaining an extensive online resource library and list of frequently asked questions from school districts on the VDOE website. “A huge consideration for school divisions is how they will provide new instruction, and how to provide services to students with some pretty intensive needs and support their families during this time.”
Students with IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans, may need their plans adjusted while schools are closed.
Also discussed was the pandemic’s impact on teachers who still need to complete licensure requirements this spring. For student teachers whose 10-week internships were cut short by school closures, the VDOE is working with college teacher education programs on modifications to help them meet the requirements, Lane said.
In some cases, the VDOE is authorized to grant 1-year extensions, such as for teachers who hold provisional or renewable licenses expiring June 30. Other requirements, like completing hands-on CPR training, or new teachers having to pass the Praxis exam, are out of the department’s control because they are written into state law.
“A significant number of licensing requirements will have to be worked on with the General Assembly because they’re in the Virginia code,” Lane said.
The VDOE shares updates and resources about COVID-19 and public education at www.doe.virginia.gov/covid19. This includes guidance for school districts on a variety of issues related to the school closures and a list of frequently asked questions that is updated on a regular basis. This page also links to a resource called “COVID-19: A parent guide for school-age children,” with information specifically aimed at families and educational activities students can do from home.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.