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Back-to-school chat, virtually / July 23, 2020
Halifax County educators answered questions, appealed for cooperation, and sought to lay the groundwork for ongoing communication with school families during a virtual “town hall” question-and-answer session Tuesday night that was streamed live on the Halifax County Public School Facebook page.

The meeting, which was moderated by Cluster Springs Elementary teacher Ruth Leigh and featured Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg, HCHS Principal Michael Lewis and Sinai Elementary Principal Francine Davis, received over 4,000 views and remains available on the HCPS Facebook page for watching

School officials explained their plans for the new school year — how to provide social distancing in classrooms and buses, ways that parents can help their students master a hybrid model for in-class and at-home online learning, and what could happen if coronavirus cases pop up in schools or individual classrooms.

“We have two goals for opening schools, safety and adaptability,” said Lineburg.

Questions from the public largely revolved around the quality of education, extracurricular activities, internet access, and transportation. Teachers and staff are preparing for the first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. To solidify their plans, the school division needs families that haven’t responded to a school survey to do so as soon as possible.

The survey asks parents and caregivers to state a preference for their students — whether they will be learning full-time at home using online educational platforms, or attending two days of school in-person and learning at home the other three days of the week. While the School Board has made no final decision on the instructional model for the upcoming year, administrators have outlined plans for an A/B school calendar, with students attending class on alternating two-day weekly blocs. Fridays would be set aside for teacher planning and development and student outreach.

Survey responses from parents are needed to help schools determine how many students will be attending class each day, which will in turn help the school division develop plans for social distancing, school bus routes and numerous other aspects of the school day.

“Once we go down this path, please stick with your choice [of instructional model] to the fullest and try your best,” said Lineburg.

What the normal day will look like is not yet certain. Classroom and school staffing is also up in the air. Most coursework will be taught by licensed teachers, but HCPS is looking to hire additional substitute teachers and support staff.

Day-to-day operations will be normal as possible, “but we have to be adaptable and I have tremendous confidence in our principals, teacher and central office, they know how staffing will work out in the days ahead,” said Lineburg.

Davis emphasized that students’ desks will be spaced six feet apart and there will be opportunities during the day for recess because exercise is important emotionally and physically for the well-being of children.

As for extracurricular activities like sports, “we are still waiting on a start date from the Virginia High School League,’ said Lewis.

Lewis also addressed the subject of the high school’s career and technical education program, which will still be operable with a mix of virtual and face-to-face instruction. Lewis used the example of learning to take vehicle carburetor apart by watching a video online.

How to protect the health of students and staff in the midst of a worldwide pandemic was a recurring theme of the online town hall session.

Under guidelines issued by the Virginia Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Virginia Department of Health (VDH), “we have to maintain six feet distance in the classrooms, hallways, and while riding the bus. If there are times when we go under six feet, a face mask will be worn,” said Lineburg.

The school division is planning two-day, in-person attendance for a simple reason: to cut down the number of people inside school buildings each day, thus reducing the risks of spreading the coronavirus. Aside from smaller class sizes, schools will stagger classroom bell schedules so fewer students are congregating in hallways at the same time, and nurse staffing level will increase. Temperature checks will be administered before a child is allowed on the bus or enters the school building.

School officials appealed for help from parents to keep school bus stops running smoothly. If your child has a fever, they will not be allowed on the bus. An exception arises if a parent is not available to pick up an unwell child. In that case, there will be a seat provided for children running a temperature at the front of the bus. Once the bus arrives at school, there will be rooms set aside for students who are showing symptoms of being sick.

The question was asked — what happens if a teacher tests positive for COVID-19. The result will be guided by the Virginia Department of Health. It is possible students would have to be safely quarantined at home for two weeks. For the teacher, the Family First Coronavirus Act allows two weeks with full pay for recovery without losing any sick days.

Not yet known: Whether staff will be tested on a regular basis — school officials are waiting on more information from the VDH for that answer. Meantime, students will not be required to sign a no-fault waiver to relinquish the school of any fault if their child becomes sick because such a step is not legally necessary.

“There is an assumed risk when the student steps on the yellow school bus or playing in activity at school,” said Lineburg.

“It is a bumpy road and we will have protocols in place. We do not know if the class will be quarantined or possibly the whole school [with an outbreak], but we will make health decisions that are best for the safety of students every time,” he added.

A sanitation checklist has been created for all employees to deep clean and disinfect desks, door knobs and commonly used areas every day. “We have been stockpiling hand sanitizer,” Lineburg said.

Switching topics, Lineburg urged parents to monitor their child’s school work at home with classroom time reduced.

“If you see your child is struggling with homework, please contact the teacher or principal,” said Lineburg, who added that parent feedback will be critical for making the school year work out successfully.

To parents who support a traditional five-day school week, “it is impossible due to the six foot stipulations in the safety guidelines,” said Lineburg, adding that educators vastly prefer a normal schedule, too, but must develop a plan that meets health and education department guidelines. “The A/B model is necessary, but if guidelines change we will update our hybrid policy,” added Lineburg.

The School Board will hold a meeting in the coming week with a health expert to refine safety precautions for the new school year. Trustees are aiming to have a final plan in place for approval at the next meeting of the School Board on Aug.10.

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