All Halifax County Public School students will receive remote instruction until at least December after a decision from Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg to close the school facilities starting Tuesday after receiving health data from the Virginia Department of Health that put Halifax County in the “highest risk phase” of having transmission of COVID-19.

Previously, special education students, English learners and students by appointment were allowed to come into the school buildings for face-to-face instruction, but that has been put on hold.

School facilities will be closed to students until at least Dec. 7, when school officials will reevaluate health data to see if it is safe for students to return.

“It was a tough day on this, but we look forward to the days ahead,” Lineburg told Halifax County School Board members when they met Monday evening.

He explained to the board that he made the executive decision to close the facilities, just as he has the right to do so as superintendent for things such as snow days or an outbreak of another illness.

The superintendent made the decision Monday after speaking with head nurse Tina Slabach and reviewing data from the Centers for Disease Control that says the 14-day average positivity rate for Halifax County is at 11.8% as of Monday, which puts the county in that “highest risk phase.”

The CDC also reports that Halifax County has had 521.7 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days.

Lineburg said anything over 200 new cases per 100,000, and any 14-day average positivity rate over 10% puts a county in the highest risk category, and when in the highest risk category, the Virginia Department of Education recommends operating in phase one, which is to consider remote learning only.

Slabach also said the county had a positivity rate of 15.5% on Monday, and as of Monday, there have been 737 cases of COVID-19 in Halifax County since March.

Previously, the county had positivity rates of 3.6% in October and 4.1% in September.

The head nurse also said there have been a total of 15 COVID-19 cases from Aug. 14 to Nov. 16 among school employees, with only three employees testing positivite since the board’s Oct. 26 meeting.

The school system also has 21 employees currently in quarantine due to COVID-19 and six students, Slabach reported.

She also said they’ve had 63 people total in quarantine since Aug. 14 and 26 tests have been negative thus far.

ED-7 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd commended Slabach for “somewhat protecting” those in the school system during a “time of a spike.”

“You all are doing a wonderful job following protocol,” said Lloyd, who also commended her and Lineburg for using the 14-day average positivity rate to make their decisions rather than a single-day snapshot.

Meanwhile, vice chairman and ED-3 trustee Sandra Garner-Coleman chastised some of the board members for choosing not to wear masks saying not wearing one is “very selfish” and “not showing any concern for your fellow man.”

“If we do not lead by example, how do we expect our employees to follow it,” said Garner-Coleman.

As far as employees, they will continue to work from classrooms and other work spaces and are encouraged to work alone as much as possible during this closure of school facilities.

The school system is suggesting employees stay in classrooms, wear face coverings and stay socially distanced, and to use community spaces as little as possible.

If a community space is used, employees should adhere to the six-foot social distance and wear their masks.

High touch areas in community spaces must be cleaned often and with regularity.

As Dec. 7 nears, health data will be reevaluated in hopes of allowing the school system to revert back to phase two where they can return back to face-to-face instruction for the groups who have been permitted to be in their school facilities.

In other efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the school board unanimously agreed to allow non-essential employees, who are able to perform their job at home, to work from home during the week of Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.

Essential employees should report to their buildings, and principals and directors will notify employees who are deemed essential, said Lineburg.

He also stressed employees who choose to stay home that week “must be able to perform their job from home.”

However, some special education students will be able to enter the buildings throughout the closure such as those who are being tested as part of the eligibility process and have had appointments previously established.

The school board also unanimously approved allowing special education students to receive speach, occupational and physical therapy by appointment at each building.

Martha Brizendine, director of special education, told the board that many students with individualized education plans have not had success completing distance therapy sessions due to reasons such as poor internet connectivity, parents being unable to manage sessions, students being noncompliant or therapists having difficulty contacting parents.

Transportation will be provided for these students, if required, and Brizendine said she had been in contact with transportation director Dwight Elam about this.

Also Monday evening, the school board heard an update from Halifax County Middle School Principal Dawn Miller on internet cafes, that have been postponed until at least Dec. 8.

She told the board that 28 students had expressed interest in participating in the internet cafes with some needing assistance with Canvas and others academic assistance only, and others both. She also said 21 teachers had expressed interest in helping with the internet cafes.

The plan is to have the internet cafes on Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. with students working with teachers in an hour increment.

Upon arrival, Miller said the student would participate in a health screening then receive support for Canvas or academic needs from a licensed teacher using his or her school-issued Chromebook, and at the end of the session, the area would be disinfected for the next student.

Halifax County High School Principal Michael Lewis also provided an update to the board Monday about Standards of Learning testing. He reported that out of the 161 students who had completed the Work Keys assessment, a test that replaced the English SOL, 145 had been successful giving the school system an 89% pass rate.

He said a few more still needed to take the test.

Next semester, the high school principal anticipates having up to 550 students needing to take either a reading, biology, world geography, world history, Virginia history or U.S. history SOL in order to graduate.

He anticipates most of the tests to be completed in the morning, and he said grab and go breakfasts and lunches would be provided.

Answering a question from ED-8 trustee Walter Potts, he said they would likely have no more than 200 in an area at a time with students spread out on different floors throughout the high school with students wearing masks and being at least six feet apart while in the building.

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