While the calendar for the 2020-21 school year has been set, whether teachers will deliver instruction to students face-to-face, in an online format or a mixture of both is still up in the air as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the county.

The Halifax County School Board approved the calendar for the upcoming school year at its Monday evening meeting. Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg told the crowd of parents gathered in the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria that he did not plan to make a final recommendation on the instructional model for the 2020-21 school year that evening.

“These are the toughest circumstances that we’ve dealt with in our 30 years. We’re doing our very, very best. We have so many balls in the air right now,” Lineburg said. “The primary concern we have is safety. We want to make sure everybody is safe. We have vulnerable students and we have vulnerable staff, so that is a significant concern…Our students come first in Halifax County.”

All board members were present at the meeting, with ED-5 representative Freddie Edmunds joining virtually.

In a 6-2 vote, the school board approved an instructional calendar with a Tuesday, Sept. 8, start date for students. The calendar includes 16 days of professional development for teachers prior to the students’ first day of school to give the teachers adequate training to learn new online instructional methods and policies and procedures in preparation for a school year that will look completely different from years past.

ED-2 representative Roy “Keith” Lloyd and ED-7 representative Keith McDowell voted “no” on the 2020-2021 calendar.

“Is this something that has to be decided tonight?” Lloyd asked prior to the vote.

“I think we can adopt it as a tentative calendar, subject to change,” vice chairwoman and ED-3 representative Sandra Garner-Coleman offered.

ED-4 representative Jason “Jay” Camp asked Lineburg if the students would take exams next school year. Lineburg replied that while Standards of Learning (SOL’s) are still included in the curriculum for the upcoming school year, State Superintendent Dr. James Lane has requested to have them waived.

“Our focus on the SOL’s will be diminished,” Lineburg said.

The school calendar the board approved includes the following important dates: Dec. 23-Jan. 1 is winter break, April 5-9, 2021 is spring break, Wednesday, June 16, is the last day for students, and Saturday, June 19, is graduation.

The school board also is faced with the daunting task of deciding how instruction will be delivered to students in the upcoming school year.

Dr. Jeanie Hawks, the school system’s director of instructional technology/ division testing, presented the results of the survey the school system recently sent out to parents to gain their feedback before making a final decision about the upcoming school year. As of Monday, 3,458 parents had responded to the survey.

The survey gave the parents a choice of two instructional models: a hybrid instructional model with in-person instructional two days per week and distance (online) learning three days per week, and a distance learning only instructional model. Of the survey respondents, 68% chose the hybrid model, while the other 32% selected the distance-learning model.

“One thing I think we’ve done well over the years is listen to our community, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Lineburg said, referencing the survey.

Board chairman and ED-6 representative Todd Moser asked the parents to be patient with them as they went through the process of making decisions about the upcoming school year.

“We’re going to do our best to get your children back to school,” Moser told the parents. “Give us time to work this out, and pray for us.”

Garner-Coleman also asked the parents to “keep us in your prayers” as they made decisions about the 2020-21 school year. She said the school board has to protect the health of all of its staff members when making those decisions, and some of the staff members have underlying health conditions. She added if teachers become sick with COVID-19 and have to quarantine, that would interfere with instruction.

“If we lose our teaching staff, nobody will be at school,” Garner-Coleman said. “We have to be protective of our staff.”

Multiple parents shared their opinions about the method of instruction that they believe is best for their children at Monday’s meeting, with the majority preferring a four or five-day face-to-face, traditional instructional week.

Lacey Shotwell, a parent, proposed bringing the students back to school in the fall five days a week for in-person instruction.

“I would say that our educators and our teachers are essential workers. We need them to come back to work,” Shotwell said. “Our education is very important to our kids…please, please let our kids come back to school.”

Ciera Elliott, a parent with three children in the school system, also said she would like to see her children go back to school for face-to-face instruction five days per week. She shared that one of her children is dyslexic and learns best from face-to-face instruction.

The school system shares Elliott’s belief that students with learning disabilities need in-person instruction.

“Students with disabilities need to be in front of their teachers, face-to-face, as many days as possible,” Lisa Long, the school system’s director of elementary education, said in her presentation of the school system’s proposed instructional model for the upcoming school year later in the meeting.

The instructional model also proposes sending pre-K through second grade students, as well as Career and Technical Education students, to school for face-to-face instruction Monday through Thursday. Friday would be used as a teacher workday and would give the custodial staff time to sanitize the school before the students return the following Monday.

Long told the board the school system is looking into the possibility of using the STEM Center for extra classroom space for the elementary school students, because most classrooms will only be able to accommodate 12 students with the social distancing requirements.

Another parent, Beth Farmer, advocated for a four or five-day face-to-face instructional week for her children, as well.

“Our children are flowers; they need to grow. They need socialization. I have seen them blossom and come alive again now that they’re back with their friends again playing sports,” Farmer said. “The kids need to be in school in a regular pattern, on a day-to-day basis.”

Farmer added that she does not have internet access at home, so it would be impossible for her children to participate in online instruction.

Another parent, Steve Salley, had similar thoughts. He said not only does he want his children to be back in school, but it seems to be what the children want, as well.

“I’m an advocate of a five-day school week. The kids need structure,” Salley said. “I’ve not talked to any kid who does not want to be back in five-day school.”

Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the Halifax County-South Boston NAACP, presented another view. She urged the school board to consider the safety of the children first when making decisions about instruction for the upcoming school year.

“We have to think about what our children are experiencing as they return to school,” Coleman-Brown said. “Safety first, then health care second.”

Camp followed up with the parents’ comments by asking Lineburg, “Is there any way that we can physically distance 5,000 kids with 6 feet of distance five days a week?”

Lineburg responded that with the guidelines the school system has received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is impossible to have all the students in school five days a week, but having all the students in school four days a week should be possible.

“I think we need to make the parents aware that it is going to be physically impossible to go four or five days a week just by the sheer numbers of students,” said ED-8 representative Walter Potts Jr.

He added, “We’re going to do what’s best for the kids. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Lloyd proposed and later formally made a motion for the board to hold a work session meeting at a later date to be determined, with a health professional present before making a decision about the instructional format for the upcoming school year.

“This issue is probably the largest we’ve faced in quite some time. I think it’s something too large to vote on in a business meeting,” he said.

Lloyd’s motion passed in a 7-1 vote, with Garner-Coleman casting the dissenting vote.

McDowell said he would like the school system to send out another survey to parents listing a four-day face-to-face instructional week as an option along with the other two options given in the original survey.

“I think I’d like to go ahead and get this survey out so when we have this (work session) meeting, we will know what the parents want,” McDowell said.

Moser agreed with McDowell’s recommendation.

The school system plans to host a virtual town hall session at 7 p.m. July 21 to answer questions from parents and the general public about the upcoming school year. The session will be streamed live on the Halifax County Public Schools’ Facebook page.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.