As tensions ran high and passionate pleas from parents of children with special needs gripped all in attendance at Monday night’s meeting of the Halifax County School Board, no changes to the current schedule were made during the meeting.
A roll call vote to allow 169 special education students to return to school on Sept. 21 was defeated after the eight-member board deadlocked in a 4-4 tie.
Trustees that voted to allow the special education students back into the schools were chairman and ED-6 trustee Todd Moser, ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd, ED-4 trustee Jason “Jay” Camp and ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell.
Voting against the measure were vice-chairman and ED-3 trustee Sandra Garner-Coleman, ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley, ED-5 trustee Freddie Edmunds and ED-8 trustee Walter Potts Jr.
“The children are at a disadvantage…I’m conflicted and emotional about the whole thing… It comes to basic compassion sometimes for your fellow human beings,” Camp said before the vote.
“They need the human touch, they need their teachers and I think that it can be done with social distancing,” he added.
But Coleman responded saying, “I hear everyone. My heart is there too but I don’t want to attend another funeral, our numbers are skyrocketing. Federal government timelines have not wavered or changed throughout this pandemic.”
Lloyd said that he has received numerous phone calls lately and all but one of those calls were parents asking him to vote to allow the children to come back to school.
He reminded everyone that if they vote to allow the special education children to return to school that the parents still have the option of having their child continue with distanced learning.
Lloyd then made the motion to allow 169 special education students to come back to school for face-to-face learning starting Sept. 21. McDowell seconded the motion.
Potts then spoke up to request a roll call vote, and urged school board members to not vote based off of emotions.
“We have to understand what we are going to do, and we cannot go on emotions,” Potts said.
Fraley then spoke and passionately explained that the vote coming up was going to be one of the hardest decisions she has personally had to make.
“I do not want to put them in the position to put them in school and contract the virus,” Fraley said.
“This is a decision that we should not be making. None of us are doctors, none of us are nurses, and we have been put in a position to make a decision based off of what we feel and see in numbers and from what constituents and teachers convey to us.
“It is a difficult decision to make, and I am really sorry that we have to make it,” Fraley added.
Several parents of special needs children were on hand to speak to the board on Monday night and implored the board to let those children back into school.
Holly Comer brought her son Wyatt with her to the podium.
Wyatt is eight years old and has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Sotos Syndrome.
He has been in the Halifax Public School System since he was two and a half, and due to his disorder, he does not speak, is in diapers and requires constant supervision.
“There are truly no words to express the amount of improvements he (Wyatt) has made since he has been a student here, getting all of the services this county graciously provides. However since COVID things have changed,” Comer said.
Wyatt is in the special education program at South Boston Elementary School, and his mother described his Individual Education Plan (IEP) as “ideal.”
He was set to receive occupational therapy and speech therapy twice a week, along with physical therapy once a week, but since he has not been in the school buildings, they have had to resort to worksheets sent home to them.
Comer explained that they do not have internet at their home in Virgilina. She said the only internet available to them is satellite and that doesn’t give them the capability to stream anything or participate in Zoom classrooms.
Wyatt also was going to begin learning American Sign Language this year because he is unable to communicate verbally, but what he needs to begin learning this skill is not feasible online or through a worksheet.
“The thought of where my son may be after this singular educational time scares me as a parent. I am no teacher, and my son should not be able to suffer because of this,” she said.
“Routine is such an important picture in our lives,” she added before calling the current situation, “counter productive.”
Mike Trent spoke on behalf of his son that also is a special needs child in the school system.
“For a lot of our kids, the dangers of not having in-person school far outweigh the dangers to them getting COVID,” Trent said. He also noted that the virus was to be taken seriously and all precautions should be in place, but when it came to special education kids he felt they should be back in school.
Director of special education Martha Brisendine gave an update to the board and requested they allow special education students that need to be evaluated to come into the schools starting Sept. 21 in order to meet timelines set forth in federal regulations.
Many parents agreed at the end of last school year to a 65-day timeline extension on reevaluations, and at this time there are 17 students that need to be reevaluated that were given the extension, according to Brisendine’s report.
There also are 34 other students that need to be reevaluated before the timeline is up, she added.
Edmunds then made a motion to allow the 51 students that need to be reevaluated and tested come into the schools to complete the testing.
The testing would be by appointment only, and each test would take from 2-3 hours to complete.
Vice-chairman Coleman seconded the motion from Edmunds.
After a brief discussion between several board members the vote passed unanimously 8-0 in favor of allowing those 51 children into the schools to complete their testing.
The school board also voted to allow 24 career and technical education (CTE) students to return to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) to continue their classes.
Vice-chairman Coleman made the motion to allow them to return provided they provide their own transportation to and from SVHEC.
Fraley seconded the motion, and the motion passed 7-1 with McDowell being the only dissenting vote.
McDowell said he disagreed with allowing the 24 students to return to the SVHEC when they wouldn’t allow the 169 students return, who were going to spread out among seven schools.
Allowing special education students to return to Halifax County Public Schools would’ve been the second step in the reopening plan that was presented by superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg.
In the phased approach template the first steps allow career tech students and special education students to return to school, followed by homeless students and English learning students.
Tina Slabach, the head nurse with the school system, provided COVID-19 numbers for the district, regionally and locally.
As of Monday morning, the positive rate for the Southside Health District was 12.1%, an increase from district’s 3.7% on June 9, said Slabach.
The Southside District is comprised of Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties.
She also reported that there were 292 cases in Halifax County as of Monday that puts the county at 855.8 cases per 100,000, according to Slabach.
Halifax is classified as high burden fluctuating with substantial community spread, according to the head nurse.
At the last meeting in August, Slabach said Halifax was at moderate burden with increasing and approaching substantial community spread.