Tuesday was the first day of school for students in Halifax County Public Schools.
Instead of hopping on a school bus and heading into their classrooms to meet their teachers and classmates, the students logged into virtual classrooms on Zoom, interacting with their teachers and classmates from a distance.
“It’s exciting to get back, and everybody’s happy to be back,” said Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg. “This virtual learning is such a new thing. We know that our teachers have been working hard, and we have really engaged our parents and teachers…so I think we’re pleased. We wish the kids were here with us, but we’re going to keep working.”
Thirty-two new teachers interacted with their students virtually on the first day of school. As of Friday, 4,483 students were enrolled in Halifax County Public Schools.
Lineburg said the school system’s student platform, Canvas, was down for a period of time Tuesday as the internet appeared to be down in “large spots of Virginia,” but it was restored in a short period of time.
“It caused some bumps in the road, but we got it back up and running,” Lineburg said. “We know there are going to be lots of pitfalls (with virtual learning).”
The superintendent encouraged parents to call their child’s school if they encounter any problems with virtual learning.
The Halifax County School Board decided that students would start school virtually for the first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The board will reassess the situation after the first nine weeks and make a decision regarding virtual versus face-to-face learning moving forward.
Tuesday was a hectic day for Crystal Henderson, who works full-time and has two children in school: Addilynn Henderson, a third grader at Meadville Elementary School and Bailee Henderson, a seventh grader at Halifax County Middle School.
“It’s been a little stressful trying to work full-time and answering Facetime messages from my children and making sure everything is getting done,” Henderson said. “There have been a few hiccups with my son Bailee’s Zoom links, but he was able to complete the required Zoom classes that he had to do so far.”
While Bailee is doing his virtual learning and schoolwork at home, Addilynn does her schoolwork at the First Baptist Church Weekday School in South Boston.
“They extended the weekday school to students enrolled virtually at the public schools this year. They hired a teacher for every two grade levels as well as assistants, and they are providing additional instruction and enrichment activities such as art and PE. They try to provide a full day of learning,” Henderson explained. “It gives me peace of mind knowing that Addilynn will get her work done there.”
Another parent, Beth Farmer, has two children who started school virtually this year. Her son, Jay Farmer, is an eighth grader at Halifax County Middle School, and her daughter Evelyn Farmer is a ninth grader at Halifax County High School. She said she would prefer her students to be in a face-to-face learning environment, but based on her children’s first day, she is “optimistic” about the virtual learning.
“We’ve had good luck. So far, my children have not had a Zoom at the same time. I hope that continues,” Farmer said. “When my son Jay got through with his science Zoom this morning, he went ahead and completed all of his assignments for the whole rest of the week.”
Farmer added her daughter Evelyn was disappointed that her first day of high school was at home, but she was making the best of her virtual high school experience. She described the Zoom experience as slightly different but having a similar feel to a regular classroom experience.
“The students can all see each other unless a student is in ‘blackout’ mode. They’re muted in the Zoom, but they can unmute to ask questions, or they can type in their questions,” Farmer explained.
Kimberly Gordon, an English teacher at Halifax County High School, said the first day of virtual learning was going well so far.
“My students seem eager and ready to go. I had some students completing assignments last night,” Gordon shared. “I have had a lot of parents and students reach out to me asking questions. Communication during this time is key, so I am so grateful for them emailing and reaching out.”
Gordon added she knows there will be “hiccups” with the virtual learning, but she is focusing on the things that are within her control rather than the things that are beyond her control, such as problems with the internet connection.
“If the internet goes down, then we try again later,” Gordon said.
Kacey Whitt, principal of Cluster Springs Elementary School, also said the first day of school was going well, and her staff had been excited about the new school year.
“So far, so good. We’ve had good luck getting everybody logged onto the morning meetings,” Whitt said. She added the school has set up a technology helpline and an instructional helpline that anyone can call to get assistance with the virtual learning.
“It’s a learning curve for everybody,” Whitt commented. “It’s a year for grace and flexibility, and we’re all going to get there together.”