How a rural superintendent balances COVID concerns
The story of COVID for Superintendent Keith Perrigan has been about balance—at Bristol Virginia Public Schools, that means weighing the risk of having students in-person against the risk of not having them in class.
Extensive safety precautions have prevented any in-school virus transmissions in Perrigan’s rural district. In fact, more remote students have tested positive than in-person students, he says.
And Perrigan, like many K-12 leaders, sees significant social-emotional benefits in bringing students into building where they have regular access to friends, broadband and regular meals.
Keeping buildings opens also allows parents to remain at work. “All the diff risks fall underneath my responsibility,” Perrigan says. “The hardest part is balancing risk and making sure we do what’s best for students, staff and the community.”
Some 70% of the rural district’s students are attending class in person. The only time Bristol has had to go fully virtual was due to staff shortages around Christmas, and shortly after the new year as teachers began receiving vaccines, Perrigan says.
The district is now launching spring activities, such as athletics, prom planning, and standardized testing.
However, broadband access remains among the biggest challenges for Bristol and all rural districts. Some families can’t afford it while others can’t even get reliable service, regardless of the cost, Perrigan says.
The second biggest challenge facing rural school systems—pre- and post-COVID—is aging buildings, as state governments have backed away from funding capital needs, Perrigan says.
COVID brought this issue to the forefront, as older buildings have less space to social distance and less-efficient ventilation systems.
“Many rural schools are in bad shape,” Perrigan says. “We have to turn our attention to making sure we have buildings that are conducive to 21st century learning.”
Building a virtual academy
Though Bristol has worked hard to keep students in school, remote and online learning will remain part of instruction as the district emerges from the pandemic, Perrigan says.
“Mow that remote learning has been let out of Pandora’s Box, I don’t think we’re going to cram it back in,” he says.
Yet, teachers can’t sustain the greatly increased amount of planning it takes to teach in-person and online at the same time. Perrigan is now working with several other rural school divisions in Virginia to develop a regional virtual academy.
“One good thing that has come out COVID, it has caused us to rethink everything we do,” Perrigan says. “It’s forced us to reimagine what public education looks like.”