With the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate tripling since the Halifax County School Board’s December meeting, pre-K through third grade students’ pending February return doesn’t look promising.
Head nurse Tina Slabach delivered the news to the board when they met Monday evening saying the county’s positivity rate of COVID-19 is at 20.9%.
The rate measures the positive results against the overall number of people tested. Health experts have said a high rate indicates the illness is not under control in a community.
At the school board’s December meeting, she said it was 8.6%.
Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg told the board, “The numbers have been going up every single day since Christmas.”
While he, the teachers and the staff want to see students return to in-person instruction, the superintendent said as long as the positivity rate is it at 20%, there’s “no way” he would recommend their return.
“The community needs to commit to driving these numbers down. It’s going to take everyone to do that,” said Lineburg.
Slabach also told the board the county has a current 14-day average of 908.6 cases. The average was 319.5 cases in December. Those figures are based on a 100,000-population scale.
She also said the school system has had a total of 54 positive cases since August.
Five employees currently have tests pending, and employees have had 43 negative COVID-19 tests since August, according to Slabach.
The head nurse also said 48 employees are currently in quarantine either due to testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to someone else who has tested positive.
She also said two students who have recently participated in in-person activities have tested positive for COVID-19, and 25 students are in quarantine.
ED-8 trustee Walter Potts asked if they could know about the positive cases more in advance than at each school board meeting.
“Why do I got to wait each month to find out,” said Potts.
Chairman and ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley said she follows the county’s numbers with the Virginia Department of Health and checks with her school’s principal regularly to see if they have any positive cases.
The ED-8 trustee also said he felt it was “utterly ridiculous” that they were still talking about a possible February return for students.
“We went from 300 to 900,” said Potts. “Maybe I need to let that simmer a little bit… I don’t know why we don’t close schools down.”
But ED-3 trustee Sandra Garner-Coleman said, “The numbers speak for themselves.”
She also said, “We don’t lead by example… when we’re in this board room, we need to have our face covered. We have board members who aren’t even doing that. If you’re talking, then you can uncover, but you need to have your mask on. People are sitting here with no mask on, and people are dying.”
ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd also said the school board has been receiving emails weekly regarding the numbers.
Nonetheless, the superintendent said they should do a better job sharing the numbers with the board.
He also addressed students utilizing buildings to take Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.
Earlier in the meeting, student representative Kathryn Allen told the board sending students into school buildings to take SOLs tears at her.
“It seems like testing is more important than our students. It’s strange to me that you’re still going to send them in there,” said Allen.
She also said, “It’s infinitely better to miss school than to go to a funeral of a friend I’ve known my entire life…”
But Lineburg said, “Everyone knows I’m not for standardized testing… we are under mandates to have standardized testing.”
He said he has been working with Halifax County High School principal Michael Lewis to make sure they have students spread out and are trying to do it the safest way possible.
The superintendent also noted that special education students are the only students who had been in the building before now and that employees have had the option to work from home since Thanksgiving.
Lineburg also told the board that he had hoped to have an update on guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education on student’s returning, but he said he had not received them yet.
He reminded the board that they had already voted to allow special education and English learning students to return and pre-K through third in February “if conditions are being safe.”
“I will say no if the numbers are too high,” said Lineburg.
Potts also asked about sports, and the superintendent said that was going to be decided on a week-by-week basis.
In the meantime, he and Slabach will continue to review the health data and hope to see a decline in numbers.
“I don’t know why we think it’s going to be any better,” said Potts.
Garner-Coleman told Potts, “I think the rising numbers will take care of our decision.”
In other action, the board also approved certain Career and Technical Education students to return to school buildings either on an A/B two-day schedule or by appointment when Lineburg agrees that health data is favorable.
CTE coordinator Debra Woltz told the board that there are 29 nursing students who need to review skills and complete clinicals as well as five students in the Teachers for Tomorrow program who need to take a ParaPro Praxis test and 150 students in the personal finance class who need to take certification tests.
Out of the 150 students in the personal finance class, Woltz said she did not have an exact number of students who would need to come into the school building for testing. She said students with reliable internet could take the test at home.
The school board also heard an update on vaccinations.
Halifax County is currently in stage 1A for vaccinations, which means heath care personnel and individuals in long-term care facilities are able to receive the vaccine.
Teachers are part of group 1B, which also includes first responders, child care, front line essential workers in manufacturing, food and grocery, transit and postal and adults age 75 and older.
Lineburg said they have surveyed their teachers to see who would like to take the vaccine, and he said they had received a response rate of more than 700.
The superintendent said he assumed they would be able to start vaccinations within the next couple weeks.
Slabach also told the board that school nurses were being trained to assist in administering the vaccines and that the school system would not be responsible for storage and handling of vaccines.