More than 4,300 students in Halifax County Public Schools headed back to the classroom for the first day of school Monday.
After an atypical previous school year, when elementary school children did not set foot inside school buildings until February because of COVID-19, the students, teachers and staff at one local elementary school — Clays Mill — all seemed eager to return to school for what they hope will be a more normal year.
“I’m excited to have the kids back in the building,” said third grade teacher Vickie Powell, as she welcomed her students to school Monday morning.
School principal David Duffer also expressed his enthusiasm for starting a new school year in the traditional way.
“We’re excited for us to get back in some sort of a routine,” Duffer said.
HCPS superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg and school board chair Kathy Fraley visited every school in the district Monday, and Lineburg said he was pleased by what he saw.
“It was just wonderful to see everybody back in the schools,” Lineburg said, adding students and staff members alike were doing a good job of complying with mask policies in the schools and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
“COVID-19 is beyond my control, but anybody who visited our schools today would say things looked good,” Lineburg said. “It was a good start, and I hope everybody keeps us in their thoughts and prayers in the days ahead because we want to be in school.”
Unlike last school year, the vast majority of students this school year are attending school face-to-face rather than virtually.
A total of 110 elementary students are enrolled in Virtual Virginia, and, as of Tuesday morning, 190 secondary students were enrolled in virtual learning through the school system. Coordinator for Virtual Learning Melanie Hastings noted the enrollment for virtual learning at the secondary level was expected to fluctuate during the first week.
HCPS’ total enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year is 4,681 students.
Enrollment numbers by school are 1,477 at Halifax County High School, 1,035 at Halifax County Middle School, 613 at South Boston Elementary, 521 at Cluster Springs Elementary, 230 at Scottsburg Elementary, 184 at Meadville Elementary, 189 at Sydnor Jennings Elementary, 181 at Sinai Elementary, 154 at Clays Mill Elementary and 97 at the South Boston Early Learning Center.
Although Clays Mill is the smallest elementary school in the county, the school is far from lacking in school spirit. The students’ arrival Monday morning was a celebration of sorts, with balloons gracing the front entrance of the school building, and teachers and staff standing on the sidewalk greeting the students by name.
“It’s kind of like one big family here,” Duffer said. “Here at our school, the kids know each other and look out for each other, and the teachers interact with all the kids, not just those in their classrooms.”
The students seemed as happy to be heading back into the classroom as the teachers were to have them back in class. Sierra Traynham, a pre-K student at Clays Mill, had already started heading down the sidewalk to the school building Monday morning when her mother Laveka Traynham stopped her for a moment to adjust her backpack.
“She’s really excited to be back in school,” Traynham said.
Like Traynham, other parents of Clays Mill pre-K and kindergarten students, lingered for a moment with their little ones before leaving them at school. Katelyn Reeves gave a goodbye hug to her daughter, pre-K student Emery Reeves, and admitted she would “probably be crying on the way back to the car.”
Some of the Clays Mill students had cases of the first-day jitters, as well, shedding tears as they parted ways with their parents. Third grade teacher Natalie Long had a remedy for that. She read the book “First Day Jitters” to her students, then opened up a box labeled “top secret,” containing the ingredients for “jitter juice.” Long mixed “joyous juice” with “jitters spritz” and invited the students to drink the lime green concoction, telling them the “jitter juice” would wash away their first-day jitters.
“It calmed their nerves to do something fun and different,” Long said, adding, “Our first day of school was phenomenal.”
While the HCPS staff, students and parents embraced the back-to-school routine, thoughts concerning COVID-19 still crossed their minds.
“I just hope everybody stays safe and wears a mask,” Traynham said. “I hope they have a safe and happy school year.”
Strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have become a part of students’ and teachers’ everyday routine – wearing masks inside the school buildings, socially distancing as much as possible, and washing their hands often and using hand sanitizers at stations throughout the schools.
As of the first day of school, HCPS head school nurse coordinator Tina Slabach said the school system had no student with a positive COVID-19 case in any of its school buildings. However, 14 students had positive COVID-19 cases as of Friday and were not able to start school on Monday, Slabach related.
Other students who were contacts were not able to start school Monday, either.
In addition, Slabach said two school system employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday and four others were contacts, so they were not able to come to school on the first day of the school year.
“We’re asking our employees and students to stay home if they’re not feeling well,” Slabach said.
If a positive COVID-19 case is identified, Slabach said the school system contact traces based on the health department’s most current guidelines. In the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, Slabach said the school system would contact the health department’s epidemiologist and follow their guidelines.
“We are prepared to close classrooms if that’s what they recommend we do,” Slabach said.
If a student is out of school with COVID-19, or with any other illness this school year, Lineburg said the school system would provide whatever instruction they can through Canvas, the school system’s learning management system provider. When the student returns to school, they can make up the remaining work they missed.