Parents of special education students applauded as Halifax County School Board members decided Monday evening to give 139 special education students the option to return to Halifax County Public Schools for in-person instruction starting next week.

The board continued to be divided on the issue coming to a 4 to 3 vote with one board member, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts absent.

ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd offered the motion and ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell seconded.

Voting against the measure were ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley, ED-3 trustee and vice chairman Sandra Garner-Coleman and ED-5 trustee Freddie Edmunds — the same individuals who had voted against the measure two weeks before.

On Tuesday morning, Potts said he would have maintained his stance against sending special education students to school if he had been able to attend the meeting and recommends parents choose distance learning until health data is “where it should be” surrounding COVID-19.

Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg stressed that no matter what the school board decides, parents will always have the choice of a “hybrid model” or a “remote learning” option.

The school day for special education students who choose face-to-face learning will start at 8 a.m. and end at 1:30 p.m. with remote instruction starting immediately after.

“This will not be a full day,” said Lineburg. “Through choice, they still have to serve remote learning students.”

Students with individualized education plans will be spread out amongst the secondary schools, five of the elementary schools and the South Boston Early Learning Center.

Classrooms are initally set to have no more than 11 students at a time.

Evaluations of special education students for educational achievement, occupational therapy and psychological testing also have begun, according to Martha Brizendine, director of special education.

Brizendine said as of Sept. 25, 21 students had been evaluated, and no student showed any coronavirus symptoms thus far.

Meanwhile, Tina Slabach, head nurse, said five employees had tested positive since Aug. 14 and 11 had quarantined due to contacts.

She also provided updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “indicators for dynamic school decision-making” and the Virginia Department of Health.

The CDC’s core indicators have Halifax County listed as “lower risk of transmission in schools,” as of Monday.

This is based off several indicators including the percentage of positive tests in the last 14 days, which she said stood at 3.2% as of Monday.

A total of 357 positive cases of COVID-19 in Halifax County have been reported to the Virginia Department of Health since March.

The VDH considered Halifax County as being a “moderate burden,” with fluctuating numbers and “moderate community spread.”

Slabach called the “moderate burden,” an improvement since Sept. 14 when VDH considered the county as “high burden.”

CDC guidance on moderate spread also states, “if there is minimal to moderate community transmission,” schools should continue “social distancing, use of masks, reinforcing everyday preventive actions, and maintaining cleaning and disinfection.”

The school system, according to Lineburg, plans to continue following Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Education and CDC guidelines as far as social distancing, enforcement of wearing masks and limiting mixing of classes.

“If a student refuses to wear a mask, they can choose remote learning,” said Lineburg.

Also Monday evening, the board heard a transportation presentation from Dwight Elam, transportation director, and Scott Worner, director of secondary education in which they pushed for families to consider bringing their child to school if they are able.

They said this is due to a lack in paraprofessionals who are able to participate in temperature checks for students entering buses.

McDowell, who participated in the meeting electronically, questioned why the bus drivers couldn’t take the temperatures.

But, Elam said that became a safety issue with buses stopped in traffic and bus drivers taking their eyes off of the road.

The superintendent also asked parents to help the school system by transporting children to school.

Now that special education students are set to return by Oct. 7, the board plans to meet on Oct. 15 to discuss their next step.

According to Lineburg, homeless and English language learners are the next group of students the school system plans to consider bringing back to their buildings as well as those needing writing workshops at Halifax County High School. Grades pre-K through three would be considered next followed by grades 4,5,6 and 9 and then grades 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12.

But, this is a “guiding model” subject to change with flexible dates, he said.

“Whatever we decide, I want the parents to be prepared. It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” said Lineburg.

Ashley Hodge is the editor for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com

Ashley Hodge is the editor for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com