Gov. Ralph Northam during a Friday morning press conference instructed school districts throughout Virginia to start offering in-person learning options for students by March 15.

“We know this plain fact: Children learn better in classrooms, and that’s where they need to be,” Northam said.

His announcement came days before Halifax County School Board are set to meet to continue talks about reopening Halifax County Public School facilities for in-person learning.

The school board meeting is set for Monday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria.

“I think after listening to the governor our approach is still going to be the same,” Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg said Sunday morning.

The school board had previously approved the return of special education students, English language learners and students in pre-K through third grade, but high numbers of COVID-19 transmission in the county have forced Lineburg to halt their return.

However, now with the school system beginning to vaccinate its employees and with COVID-19 numbers beginning to trend downward, they are set to open Feb. 16.

The superintendent confirmed Sunday that the Feb.16 start date is still the plan for students in pre-K through third grade as well as special education and English language learners. He said students in grade sixth through ninth grade would return shortly there after followed by fourth and fifth and then tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade.

The school board is slated to review the return plan for pre-K through third grade as well as grades sixth and ninth when they meet Monday evening.

Northam also asked each school district to offer a summer school option to give students that have fallen behind academically during the COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity to catch up before the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.

“We have known that a recovery program is necessary,” said Lineburg, who noted that Lisa Long, director of elementary education is leading the front for that.

He also said he’s been in talks with Halifax County Middle School principal Dawn Miller and Halifax County High School principal Michael Lewis regarding recovery plans for secondary students as well as Virtual Virginia.

“We’ve been planning for that (a summer program),” said Lineburg.

With some school districts throughout Virginia including Halifax County Public Schools still operating on a distance-learning only model because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northam acknowledged the return of all students to in-person learning five days a week would not happen by the March 15 date. But he said he does expect the school districts to start offering the face-to-face learning option for students.

“We need to make a start. We can do this, and we must do this,” Northam stated, adding, “The CDC says it’s possible to do this safely, and we will do it safely.”

The superintendent also noted that its important for families to know that there would always be family choice.

“I think its key for the community to know that there still will be a choice (for parents to choose a hybrid in-person learning option or solely virtual). We’ll have that in place,” said Lineburg.

The governor cited several reasons for the need for the students to return to school for in-person instruction: the decline in students’ academic performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, pediatricians’ reports of writing more prescriptions to treat behavioral/ mental health problems among children, the decline in Virginia’s COVID-19 positivity rate and efforts to vaccinate K-12 teachers, and data related to the spread of COVID-19 in various settings.

Northam said the data suggest school settings do not have “the rapid spread that we’ve seen in some other congregate settings.” He also noted that childcare centers have been operating throughout the pandemic, and the number of COVID-19 outbreaks at those centers has been “very, very low.”

In addition to the school board discussing the return to school plans when they meet Monday evening, head nurse Tina Slabach is expected to give a health update.

Also on the agenda are updates on internet cafes, grade distribution, having a school board tiebreaker, Virtual Academy including Region VIII Partners, a school board retreat date, proposed revisions to Policy GSBF Sick Leave and appointment of finance committee.

The school board also is slated to recognize school board members for Virginia School Board Association school board appreciation month, clerk Robin Mahan and deputy clerk Joyce Townes for VSBA School Board Clerk/Deputy Clerk Appreciation Week and Slabach and school nurses for all their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the conclusion of the meeting, school board members are slated to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters and property matters.