School

Socially distanced members of the Halifax County School Board and other school employees prepare for the start of Thursday’s work session at Halifax County Middle School.

While no final decisions were made on the reopening of school at the work session held by the Halifax County School Board on Thursday, the board was able to hear from a local doctor, superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg, school nurses and others who gave input on issues that will be addressed as the school reopening plan gets close to being finalized.

Another work session is being scheduled soon where the board wishes to hear from the information technology (IT) department about how they plan to accommodate students if the decision is made to have at least some form of remote learning when the school year begins.

“We are close to being ready,” Dr. Lineburg said in his opening remarks.

Since March 13, they have read every document available preparing to make a decision, and while noting that the board is governed by policy, he said it’s the board’s role to shape policy.

As Lineburg reminded those in attendance and those watching via the live stream that his background is not in medicine, but in education, and that he puts students, faculty and staff first in all things.

Lisa Long, director for elementary education, presented their proposed plan that pushes the school year back to Sept. 8.

Students in Pre-K through second grade need to be in a classroom every day in front of teachers, Long said. All special needs children Pre-K-12 also will be in school Monday through Thursday, as well as career and technical education students, she added.

This plan, she said, was determined after reading all material from the July school board meeting and the responses from the survey that determined the number of parents with pre-K through third grade students who responded they’d like their children to be in the classroom full time.

Space also was discussed at the meeting, and due to social distancing guidelines set forth, Long said that a class of 24 students that normally would be in one classroom would now have to use three classrooms. But they were able to fit pre-K through third grade in each school based on the survey responses.

Fourth and fifth grade elementary students would be on a hybrid schedule to begin the year. There would be two in-class days and three virtual days, she explained. The in-class days would be staggered with one set of children going two days and the other group would come in for their in-person class while the others are doing their virtual learning, she continued.

The middle and high school students would be on a hybrid schedule and would have special education students in the classroom every day with other students coming either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday or to have the students to attend the Halifax Virtual Academy for distance learning every day, Long explained.

The hybrid model for the middle school would have a five period day with 75 minutes for each core class twice per week, 65 minutes of related arts twice per week, with one related arts per nine weeks, the director of elementary education explained.

High school would be 4x4 blocks where students would be placed in cohorts and grouped in teams. Classes would be closer together and bells would be rescheduled so there would not be as many students in the hallway. Long called it redesigning the school to adapt to the guidelines.

Distance learning would look much different than it did in the spring. Last spring teachers were not introducing new information. It involved checking on the students and touching base but no introduction of new material. This fall they would begin to have full new instruction with distance learning, said Long.

Chromebooks would be provided to every student PreK-12. Google Classroom and Canvas would be the primary applications used. Teachers and students will communicate directly through Zoom, email and/or telephone. Virtual Virginia resources will be added via Canvas, and a teacher will teach students through the distance-learning platform. Wi-Fi will be available in each school parking lot where students can come download content onto their Chromebooks and take home if there is no internet available at their residence.

Siblings will be sent to school together on either A day or B day, said Long.

She explained that they worked very hard to make sure that this was made a reality to help parents that have multiple children in the school system be able to arrange such things as child care.

Long closed by saying that they are looking at revising the grading policy and plan to present any changes at the next school board meeting.

ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell mentioned bringing all students in daily and said they needed to look at the parents too in the situation.

He believes they are jumping the gun, and they should wait until closer to school starting to make a decision.

Lineburg said they were not going to make any decisions during the meeting.

McDowell also questioned if every student has to wear a mask on the bus, why can’t they put more students on the bus?

Director of secondary instruction Scott Worner said the Centers for Disease Control guidelines do not allow it.

He said they are allowed only one student per seat unless the children are siblings.

The county has 115 busses, said Worner, and with guidelines, he said they could only put 21 students on each bus.

Staff has been working to learn the process of loading and unloading the bus to abide by the guidelines, he added, and they plan to release a video to students and parents before the start of school so that they will be familiar with the process.

The guidelines for CDC) were updated last week, and there were no significant changes from the last meeting that the board held. The guidelines classify risk by lowest, more and highest risk. The lowest risk is for students and teachers to engage in virtual-only classes, activities and events.

More risk is for small, in-person classes, activities and events with groups of students staying together and with the same teacher throughout and across the school day. Groups would not mix and students would remain six feet apart and no sharing objects. Examples of this would be a hybrid model that alternates between virtual and in-person structures and/or staggered rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes.

The highest risk would be full sized, in-person classes, activities and events. Students are not spaced apart and share classroom materials or supplies and mix between classes and activities.

Lineburg also went over new CDC guidelines about developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 as well as developing plans with state and local health departments to conduct case tracing in the event of a positive test.

They also expressed the need for education for parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.

Dr. Nonna Ebalo, a pediatrician at South Boston Pediatrics was on hand as well as Tina Slabach, school nurse manager, with Ebalo saying that children are very low risk from getting severe symptoms or hospitalizations from COVID-19. She said the concerning issue is the transmission from adult to adult.

The fluid situation causes a lot of confusion about the safety of students and staff, said Ebalo, who reminded everyone that they are unable to isolate the school from the community.

If there is a high transmission rate in the community, the likelihood of there being transmission in a school setting is more likely, she added.

Ebalo noted that the community numbers fluctuate so much week-to-week and that makes it harder to make a decision.

Tentative plans are to have an isolation room inside of each school for any students that present symptoms of COVID-19 and for an area on each bus for students who may get on the bus with a temperature or symptoms.

The school system is asking for parents of the students to be with their child at the bus stop each morning in the case that they are deemed sick and unable to ride the bus. Social services is another option if the parents are unable to be reached, but Worner stated that it is against the law to leave a child at a bus stop. Therefore the area on each bus is necessary in those cases where a child’s parent is unable to be reached and the child needs to be transported to an isolation room at the school to be held until such a time that a parent can be reached.

If a child becomes infected with COVID-19, they would need two school weeks or 10 school days of quarantine and that the school would coordinate with the doctor and the health department before the child would be allowed to come back to school.

Who pays for the testing also was brought up and while they are still working out the details it was mentioned that the child’s insurance would be responsible if a test was requested or required to return to school.

In discussing staff issues, assistant superintendent Valdivia Hall said each staff member was sent a survey as well about their feelings on returning to school. There are a number of employees who have expressed fear of returning to school for a variety reasons whether it is their own underlying health issues or family members in their homes that are susceptible, she said.

She said they will address each of the concerns from staff on an individual basis. There are some employees that have already requested a leave of absence at this time, said Hall and some have taken temporary jobs but plan to come back after the coronavirus has gotten under control.

Moving forward, Lineburg said they’re developing protocols related to communications. He reemphasized that they are in uncharted territory and trying to deal with this the best way possible with what they have to go on.

Board chairman Todd Moser closed the meeting by giving a brief statement and began by thanking the staff of the school board. “You all have done a tremendous job in preparing what you believe and what you think is best for our children,” Moser said.

“It weighs heavy on my heart knowing that us eight (school board members) have to make a decision that could potentially put our children, staff and parents in harms way and none of us have a medical background,” he continued.

As Moser moved to close the meeting he added that their leaders have abandoned the school system and do not want to lead or give any guidance.

“I would say God be with all of us.”

Johnathan Kirland is a sports writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him jkirkland@gazettevirginian.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanK_GV