Parents in Rockbridge fear students falling behind

By Felicity Taylor

Amber Laughy has two sons in the Lexington City School system. Jack is in fourth grade at Harrington Waddell Elementary School, and Harry is in sixth grade at Lylburn Downing Middle School.

Before the return to in-person learning on Feb. 1, Jack participated in his online classes while on a laptop in fLEX Fitness Studio, where Laughy works as a trainer. Harry preferred to continue with all-virtual learning after attending in-person classes for about a week.

Laughy said she is concerned about the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on all children. “Everyone is behind a grade now,” she said.

Lexington students attend classes in person four days a week and virtually on Fridays.

But Laughy said pandemic-related requirements of mask-wearing and the hybrid week of learning added extra stress for Harry and made it harder for him to complete his work.

Professor Haley Sigler, director of education studies at Washington and Lee University, said some children are thriving in online learning. Her seventh grader, Claire, has enjoyed working at a personal pace and has seen an improvement in grades. But Sigler had to facilitate class video calls and help her second grader, Alice, complete assignments.

Jason Kirby, director of technology and human resources for Rockbridge County Public Schools, said he worries most about mental health problems for middle schoolers and educational setbacks for elementary students.

“It is very hard to teach a child how to read over a screen,” Kirby said.

One of Amber Laughy’s sons has studied here in the lobby of a fitness studio while she works as a trainer. Photo by Felicity Taylor

Sigler said the lack of in-person, small groups that teach kids how to sound out words could take a toll on the reading development of children in kindergarten through third grade levels. She said older students generally aren’t struggling as much.

“These experiences will cause teachers to look, re-look at their classroom practices to see why some have thrived,” she said, while others have struggled.

Sigler said teachers are worried that students are losing their love of learning because school is not fun anymore.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam strongly encouraged all school systems to offer some type of in-person learning by March 15. He also announced that his administration will work to provide resources to school systems for summer learning.

“It’s time for this to happen,” Northam said in a statement. “It’s critical to prevent greater learning loss and to support our children’s health and well-being.”

Teachers and administrators in Rockbridge area public school systems are in the beginning stages of their plans for summer school programming.

Tim Martino, director of K-12 curriculum and instruction for Rockbridge County Public Schools, said officials are discussing offering two three-week sessions in June and July and starting the elementary schools early in the fall.

At a school board meeting last week, Lexington Superintendent Rebecca Walters said the schools want to use federal funding from CARES Act II to expand summer school for kindergarten through 8th grade to address learning losses in reading and math.

Walters said the funding would pay teachers for summer curriculum work in math, reading, technology and history. The CARES Act II was a $900 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in response to the economic fallout from COVID-19. It contained $53.4 billion for K-12 education.

Laughy said she opposes summer school programming. She said she prefers to send her children to summer camps, if they’re open, because she wants her kids to experience a normal summer.

She said her son, Jack, missed physical education classes the most.

“Everyone’s worried about the learning loss,” Laughy said, “not the social loss.”