The Halifax County School Board voted on Monday night to start the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual setting for the first nine weeks.
With three decisions on the table, a full return to school, a combination hybrid and distance model and full distance learning, vice chairman and ED-3 trustee Sandra Garner-Coleman made the motion to go with full distance learning for the first nine weeks of the school year and take a look again in four weeks to decide where to proceed. ED-5 trustee Freddie Edmunds seconded the motion.
The motion was passed 6-2 with ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley, ED-4 trustee Jay Camp, Edmunds, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts Jr., vice chairman Garner-Coleman and chairman and ED-6 trustee Todd Moser voted for the motion, and ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd and ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell voted against the motion.
With the decision to go with a distance model, all Halifax County Public Schools children will begin the year virtually.
Dr. Jeanie Hawks gave a report on the distance-learning model and noted that they are intentionally using the term “distance model” because not every child in Halifax County has internet access.
Hawks said each school has internet in the parking lots, but they have now extended the parking lot availability with antennas for the larger schools so that there is a larger area with signal for students to come and download their materials onto their Chromebooks. Each school has increased signal as well as the Mary Bethune Complex.
The school system personnel are working with a company to use the existing towers to upgrade infrastructure. They also are working with the community group Team Halifax to help develop a comprehensive list of areas throughout the county that may offer free internet usage to students. They are reaching out to churches, fire departments, Ruritan Clubs and possibly even neighbors around the county that will allow students to use internet.
The school system personnel also has offered and continues to offer professional development for teachers and parents. It will include a scheduled time where parents can come and pick up their child’s Chromebook and set it up and make sure the child and parent understands how to use them. They also will be implementing trouble-shooting times where technicians will be scheduled at schools to offer service to families.
Hawks also said school bus drivers, which are already delivering food, also will have packets of schoolwork available for students.
Other options include churches volunteering to use their vans to pick up children and bring them to the school parking lots to download their work.
Edmunds questioned if school busses could be used as mobile hot spots, but Hawks said for the hot spot to work, there must be cell phone service.
She said they have discussed using this as an option as long as the area has good cell phone signal.
All students will have access to a Google Chromebook for the school year.
Valdivia Hall, assistant superintendent, briefed the board on possible furloughs that would come with distance learning.
“Regardless of which model we go with we are going to have some HR challenges,” Hall said.
Under the distance model, she said employees whose jobs are dependent on students being in the building would be subject to furlough.
The assistant superintendent explained those employees will be temporarily laid off but will still have access to their health benefits and will be brought back as soon as students come back to in-person education.
Furloughed employees will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
She stated that determining which employees will be furloughed is “very fluid.”
Hall explained they have 115 busses and 43 cars on the road during a normal school year and while they will not need all of them, there is still a need for some drivers to help deliver food and packets.
In the public comments portion of the meeting Alice Willingham with the Virginia Education Association was there to offer guidance on behalf of the VEA. Her suggestion was to start the school year with 100% remote learning, and if not then immediate temperature checks on all students and staff and to allow consideration for the most vulnerable staff members to be allowed the option for remote work.
Detra Carr spoke on behalf of the Halifax County NAACP and said opening schools could create a community crisis. The NAACP supported virtual opening of schools for the first nine weeks.
Carr referenced data from schools that have already reopened and have students testing positive for COVID-19.
“This is not going to get any better, and this is going to hit home,” Carr said,
“We cannot jeopardize other people’s lives. I am asking that this school board that you all not open the schools and do virtual learning at this point for the first nine weeks and then take a look at it,” he added.
Tina Slabach, head nurse, provided updated numbers for Halifax County and the central region.
She said local incidents per 100,000 is 7.5%, and it has increased for the last six days. The district percent positivity is 14%.
Percent positivity refers to how many cases test positive have based on how many tests performed.
The percent positivity for Halifax is 2.7%.
Board member Lloyd spoke and quoted Hawks as saying that not every person has internet access in the county.
“I think that is the number one concern here,” he said. “We don’t have the infrastructure in Halifax County to support distance learning or anything of the sort,” he added.
Lloyd called distance learning a large burden on parents, who he said are not experienced educators and are doing the best they can to make ends meet.
In speaking about furloughing of employees, Lloyd said, “We are not only in a health crisis, we are in a financial crisis” before noting that the public school system is between the number one and number two largest employer in the entire county.
Lastly, he referenced the discussions on school safety that have dated back years, and he said now they are going to be asking students to sit in parking lots and other rural areas in the county in attempts to download work onto their Chromebooks.
“I understand that we are in a pandemic, and I certainly respect the fact that we are in a pandemic. I think that all of us understand that and respect it, but that’s not the only safety threat in Halifax County or within the school system,” Lloyd said.
Vice chairman Garner-Coleman noted that it takes a village to raise a child.
“We will make sure that every child in this county will receive an education as a board. We are the watch people to make sure that our children are educated. Whatever plan we put in action and you don’t think your child is getting the education they deserve, then you need to get on the phone and call us,” she said.
Fraley shared an email where the author made a comparison about if people are able to go to Wal-Mart or a ball game that they should be able to come to school. She said that they are two different places; the children are confined all day long.
“As of this morning there are 156 cases of COVID-19 in Halifax County. That is 156 too many,” Fraley said.
“In the end it will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much, but it will be quite apparent if we underreact and do too little,” she said in closing.
Camp alluded to the numbers in the county going up because at first everyone was sheltering in place and doing what they were supposed to do and then people started to get relaxed.
“There are 5,000 students in this county, and we have to look after every one of them, take care of every one,” Camp said. “I don’t want to have to go to a child’s funeral, I don’t want to have to bury a school teacher, and I would hate to think that a simple vote would do that,” he added.
McDowell came out in support of sending the children back to school four days a week. He wanted another survey done to get more input from parents on that option, because the first survey did not include it.
“We have got to start listening to the parents. It is not just our decision, it is the parents’ decision too,” McDowell said.
“I can’t agree with either method we are going with tonight,” he added referencing the distance learning or hybrid model choices. “I have five grandchildren in these schools. I worry about them too, but look we have got to get back to our lives you cannot just lay there and die,” he went on to say. McDowell then asked the question about what the difference is in going to Walmart, ball games, beaches etc. and going to school.
Edmunds said when he ran for school board his main objective was to keep all kids safe in the Halifax County School System and that his second responsibility was to keep all staff, administration and support staff safe.
“I don’t see how in the world that anyone would think it is safe to send almost 6,000 personnel, staff and children back to school and think it is going to be safe. It is not going to be safe,” Edmunds said.
Chairman Moser was the last member to lend comment on the topic before it went to a vote.
“Do I want to send kids back into something that we have an unknown for right now? No, I don’t,” Moser said. “I don’t want to see anybody going to a funeral or going to a hospital, I don’t want to see that,” he added.
Moser noted that distance learning would be in increments. They would schedule it for nine weeks and meet halfway to look at how things are going and decide whether to start bringing in the younger kids or going to hybrid.
“We are going to be judged no matter what decision we make, whether we are criticized or get patted on the back. I am not here to get patted on the back, I am here to do the right things for the kids and the community,” Moser added.
Dr. Lineburg recommended the school board to meet halfway through the nine weeks to discuss if they are ready to start bringing students back into the schools. He felt that starting with kindergarten through third grade would be the first step once it is deemed safe to start bringing them back.
After a brief discussion, a roll call vote was held where the distance learning measure for the first nine weeks was passed.
Halifax County Public Schools students will begin their distance learning on Sept. 8.