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Administrators float changes for new school year in Halifax

South Boston News
The audience for Monday's School Board meeting at HCMS. / July 14, 2020
The instructional plan for the Halifax County school year — a hybrid model combining online and classroom learning — remains a work in progress, according to Central Office administrators, but they proposed some changes for the first time publicly at the Monday night meeting of the School Board.

Among the ideas being considered:

» With the likelihood that most students will be attending school two days a week and doing lessons online at home the rest of the time, Halifax County Public Schools is looking at changing grading scales for the 2020-21 school year.

Lisa Long, director of elementary instruction and professional development, said Halifax County Public Schools is looking at a new system that would assign grades of S (satisfactory), NI (needs improvement) and U (unsatisfactory) to students in the elementary grades.

At the secondary middle school and high school levels, students would be graded on a 10-point scale from A to F.

» Although county educators have talked largely in terms of creating an A/B attendance schedule — with one group of students in school on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a second group attending Tuesdays and Thursdays — Long left open the possibility of bringing students to the classroom on consecutive days, Monday and Tuesday for one group and Wednesday and Thursday for the other group. Under all of the scenarios, Friday would be reserved for teacher planning and student outreach, and for deep cleaning of buildings.

» To create space at Halifax County High School for social distancing, Long said plans are under consideration to establish a “Senior Academy” at the STEM Center in Halifax. Under the idea, seniors would attend school at the alternative site, lessening crowding concerns at the HCHS campus.

» Students in grades nine-11 who attend the high school may be grouped in “cohort” teams, with staggered bell schedules to minimize contact between groups. Long said administrators have identified how many students can fit safely inside each of the two high school sites — 559 daily at the main HCHS building, and 180 at the STEM Center. Those numbers would easily accommodate the enrollment at HCHS, with a student body of less than 1,500 students split into alternating-day attendance blocs.

Students at both the high school and middle school would stay on a 4x4 block schedule, Long said, with a mix of classroom and at-home distance learning.

» Long said elementary schools will offer four-day, in-person classes for the youngest students, in grades K-2, with the hope of fitting the third grade into the four-day schedule — a sentiment shared by Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg. “I do think there’s a good chance we can do that,” he said.

Special education students would also attend school four days a week under the proposed schedule, and students in career and technical education program also would be in class more often for “hands-on” learning.

» Teachers and other school staff will be provided with masks to wear during the school day, but Long said teachers in the lower grades will need special masks to allow young pupils to follow along as teachers voice words and sounds — a key part of phonics instruction at an early age. “All of this is reader-driven,” said Long.

Long said the four-day classroom schedule for K-2 or K-3 students and special needs students recognizes the importance of face-to-face instruction for students who are at a beginning phase of their educational development. “Our youngest readers, when they learn, they need processing time [in front of their teachers] — they need that continuity, Monday through Thursday,” she said.

Long said the preparations for the new year extend to figuring out how many students can fit inside each classroom, with six feet of social distance. “We are working everything mathematically that we can to get our babies in [class] and be safe,” she said.

» Director of operations and maintenance Steve Brumfield said the division has ordered 5,000 surgical masks to provide to school employees for their protection, and a smaller number of cloth masks will be made available to students, although HCPS expects many students to come to school with their own masks, said Nurse Manager Tina Slabach.

» Scott Worner, interim director of secondary education, reviewed plans for food service, transportation, health checks and other procedures that will be part of the new normal at county schools. “There are a lot of logistics involved,” he said.

The Central Office is considering numerous extra steps that will be required with students eating breakfast and lunch in the classroom — trash disposal is a major consideration, Worner said — and he added one option under consideration is grab-and-go bag meals instead of relying on service at the cafeteria.

At the transportation department, the staff has come up with two sets of numbers — the average of how many riders can fit into a school bus maintaining six feet of social distance, and how many can be packed in with a requirement that all students wear masks. The answers: 12 students per bus without masks, and 23 with masks.

With the higher number of mask-wearing students, Worner said the county bus fleet will be able to deliver around 2,600 students to school each day — more than enough to transport a total student body under 5,000 students, with most students attending school on alternating days.

Worner acknowledged that more work must be done to address a situation that is sure to come up — students showing up for their school bus without masks, or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Each bus will carry an aide tasked with taking temperature checks before students come on board. School officials must make plans for students who come under their care. “We’re responsible for that child once they get to the bus stop,” said Worner.

The numbers being reviewed by the Central Office are shaped by an additional factor — families that will keep their children at home for full-time virtual learning in the new year. Worner described the task confronting administrators as “a moving target” that requires flexibility and contingency plans — especially if Virginia pulls back from Phase 3, which could force all students to remain at home for online instruction.

Although administrators said they are pleased by the number of parents who have responded to a school survey to state their intentions for the school year, Long noted that around 30 percent of families have not been heard from yet.

“If you have not done the survey, we need it back to make our planning as accurate as possible,” Long said.

The 2020-21 school year survey can be obtained by calling Halifax County Public Schools at 434-572-4100 or by emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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