As federal and state officials continue to make their stances on reopening schools known, Halifax County Public School officials plan to follow guidance issued by Virginia Department of Education, “Recover, Redesign, Restart.”
On Wednesday, a day after President Donald Trump and United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called for the full reopening of schools, Halifax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg said he plans to use that guidance that was cross-referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Virginia Department of Health.
“I refuse to engage in the political part of it,” said Lineburg.
Instead, he focused on meeting with school principals and other school district leaders on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss survey results.
Roughly over 60% of Halifax County Public School parents have completed the survey, “HCPS Back to School 2020-2021 Family Survey,” said Lineburg.
The school system has been reviewing an a/b model for the upcoming school year that would possibly have Group A attending school Mondays and Wednesdays and Group B attending school Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As part of the survey, parents were asked to choose a hybrid of in-person learning and virtual learning or solely virtual learning. They also were asked about internet service, devices, transportation and were asked to provide feedback.
So far, Lineburg said, about 70% of parents chose the hybrid option while 30% said they preferred remote learning from home.
Several parents had previously made their opinion known on social media and in emails and phone calls to the superintendent about the importance of in-person learning when the survey was first released.
Another parent, Steve Salley, who has a child entering eleventh grade next school year feels they should move forward with allowing students to return to school full-time.
“I support this because of the way our community is functioning – requiring social distancing and optional use of masks. Why should attending school be different? In addition, our neighboring Mecklenburg County, whose COVID-19 cases have been much higher than ours, is filing for a waiver from VDOE to fully reopen while following health and sanitization guidelines. I trust that our school board representatives are performing their due diligence and looking at ways for our students to be back at school as well,” said Salley.
School systems have the option of notifying VDOE if they plan to deviate from the state-issued phase guidance.
Salley also has concerns about the Group A/B approach proposed by the school system. He recommends allowing two classes per week for the first half of the semester then the other two classes for the second half of the semester, which he says would allow more face-to-face time with teachers “because students would see the two teachers twice a week every other week instead of once a week every other week.”
He also said Group A should attend Monday and Tuesday with teacher planning and school cleaning on Wednesday, and then have Group B attending Thursday and Friday.
“I feel my recommendations fully meet the same requirements as the current proposal, but it takes into account the instruction change for the students, streamlines their class schedule, and it also allows for sanitizing and cleaning between each group of students,” said Salley.
His comments come a day after Trump told America, “We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it.”
In speaking about the coronavirus and testing, he said the mortality rate is “down tenfold.”
He also said, “Because we’re doing more testing, we have more cases.”
Trump also made comments about “putting pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”
Secretary Devos made similar comments saying, “It’s clear our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their futures — and their futures represent our nation’s future. So it’s not a question of ‘if’; it’s just a question of ‘how.’”
These federal comments came days after State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and Superintendent of Schools James Lane issued an updated phase guidance for schools along with a letter addressed to superintendents and school leaders.
With the recent changes to the phase guidance for school, the superintendent does not anticipate any “significant impact,” and still plans to maintain the six-foot social distancing guideline.
The updated phase guidance, which “has been updated to reflect the latest science, and the best public health guidance and recommendations,” now says that when in Phase Three, The World Health Organization advises schools maintain a distance of at least one meter or approximately three feet between everyone present at school.
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says spacing as close as three feet may have similar benefits if students wear cloth face coverings and do have symptoms of illness.
“In areas where the community transmission of COVID-19 is more substantial, distancing of at least 6 feet will need to be strongly considered; this guidance may be subject to change as we learn more,” the letter states.
However, Lineburg says he interpreted the physical distancing guidelines that way all along – maintain six feet of distance when possible, and whenever not possible, wear a mask.
With these new changes, he did say it could impact transportation measures and possibly allow for more room.
But, he’s not sure how it could change class set up.
Nonetheless, he has said they school system plans to accommodate any parent that prefers his or her child to participate in in-person learning.
On Thursday, the superintendent said they were looking into a triangle approach for desks that would allow for six feet of distance. He also said he agreed that the younger students from pre-k to possibly third grade should be in school.
“We’re looking at every single classroom,” he said.
Lane and Oliver also noted in their letter to superintendents and school leaders that the final decisions about reopening schools are “squarely in the hands of local school boards.”
And even though Lineburg admits, “guidelines are guidelines,” he intends to follow those guidelines to ensure the safety of all Halifax County Public School students.
In addition to physical distancing, also included in Phase Three of the guidance for Virginia schools are precautions saying large school gatherings should be limited to 250 people, schools should consider restricting mixing classes and groups of students, consider closing or staggering the use of communal spaces and consider limiting the size of groups participating in outdoor activities/recess.
Indoor and outdoor recreational sports may occur in Phase Three of schools if 10 feet of physical distancing can be maintained between all instructors, participants and spectators, “with the exception of incidental contact or contact between members of the same household.”
The total number of attendees of school sporting events in Phase Three cannot exceed the lesser of 50% of the occupancy or 250 persons. If the game is played on a field, attendees are limited to 250 persons per field.
Moving beyond Phase Three, school divisions should continue to consulate with public health officials; “some restrictions may still be recommended at such time;” and “additional guidance will be forthcoming as public health data, safety precautions and guidance evolve.”
Every school in Virginia is required to submit a plan to Virginia Department of Education outlining their strategies for mitigating public health risk of COVID-19, per an Order of Public Health Emergency from the State Health Commissioner.
In the end, Lineburg said he plans to have a “good model in place,” that focuses on safety and procedures first then instruction with the least amount of constraints possible on teachers.
“The magic will happen,” he concluded.