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Back to school on hold for Mecklenburg secondary students / November 18, 2020
Mecklenburg County high- and middle-school students will not return to school until the start of the second semester in February at the earliest, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols confirmed Monday.

Speaking at the monthly meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board, Nichols rejected the idea of bringing back secondary students in grades six-12 for in-person classroom learning, citing Virginia’s worsening public health crisis with the novel coronavirus.

The need to balance safety and instruction “is critical even though in Mecklenburg number of COVID cases are going down,” Nichols said. However, “there is a significant increase around the Commonwealth and across the nation” of COVID-19 cases and there is the potential for further spikes as college students return to their hometowns for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, he explained.

For now, Nichols said the school division is hoping to return all students for in-person learning by the start of the second semester, if families so desire. Parents will be surveyed to see which learning option they prefer, with the option to send their children to school or keep them at home for remote learning.

The decision freezes the discussion on returning secondary grade students to the classroom, following in the footsteps of younger elementary students who have been attending school four days a week since September.

Among the issues that county educators confront is public resistance to a proposed hybrid attendance schedule for secondary students – with separate groups of students attending on alternating weekly schedules, as opposed to the two-day-a-week A/B schedules adopted by many area school divisions.

Nichols said only 50 percent of secondary student parents said they would support a plan for in-person classroom learning on the proposed weekly A/B schedule, with half of students attending school in person one week, Monday through Thursday, and the other half in school the following week. All students would stay home on Fridays for remote virtual learning, and on the weeks when students are at home, they would be required to sign into classes online and participate in real time.

Parents opposing the idea for the most part, said Nichols, complaining it was too disruptive to students.

Nichols said it remains the desire of Mecklenburg County Public Schools to have kids back in school as quickly as possible. While in-person learning has worked well at elementary school because of the ability to have “contained classrooms,” that same model does not work for the secondary level, he said.

Different class schedules at the high schools and middle schools require students to move from class to class and interact with a larger group of students. “If a student is positive for covid but unaware, there is a greater chance of broader exposure,” said Nichols. “A positive case at the secondary level could shut down whole school for a two-week period and we are trying to avoid that.”

The instructional plan advanced by Nichols and adopted by the School Board earlier this year reinforced the desire to have students return to face-to-face learning as soon as possible. For many reasons — including lack of available transportation and inability to limit the spread of the virus by containing the same small group of students in a single classroom — Nichols and a School Board majority agreed that except for elementary students, virtual learning was the best option.

Trustees Wanda Bailey and Gavin Honeycutt have repeatedly decried that decision, calling for Nichols to develop a plan to return all students for in-person learning as soon as possible. Honeycutt pointed out that early testing results have shown 60 percent of students are failing. Bailey argued sixth-grade students are not equipped to succeed academically in a virtual classroom setting.

Heeding those concerns, Nichols suggested during the October meeting of the School Board that he would move forward with a plan to bring sixth grade students back to the classroom after Thanksgiving break.

Less than three weeks later, in an update to the Board of Supervisors, Nichols hinted that the plan to return the sixth graders might not go forward. Trustees received confirmation of that fact at Monday night’s November monthly meeting in Boydton.

Nichols also discussed the second semester outlook for the county’s elementary schools. Nichols said elementary parents who earlier this year chose to have their child attend school virtually will be offered the second semester option of in-person or virtual classes. Depending on the number of students who agree to in-person learning — currently it’s about 50 percent of all elementary students — students in grades pre-K through five will either continue on a weekly schedule of four days in class, with one day of virtual learning, or transition to the same weekly A/B schedule proposed for secondary students.

“My hope is that the elementary [students] will come every week, but that is specifically determined by the number of students who want to come back since we can only have 16 students per classroom,” Nichols said.

Bailey asked Nichols “what would be the deciding factor” if elementary schools shelve four-day weekly attendance and move instead to an A/B schedule, with students divided up into two groups attending school on alternating weeks. Nichols replied, “It’s a numbers issue for the classroom. Right now, it’s 10-12 students coming in face-to-face.”

If more families opt to send their children back to school, it may no longer be possible to meet the classroom size limits with all students on a four-day classroom schedule together.

Trustee Glenn Edwards advocated against making such a change, calling it “disruptive” to the elementary students.

Nichols promised a final decision on school schedules would be made before the Christmas break.

Honeycutt noted his disappointment with the decision to keep secondary students at home. “If one kid out of 4,000 is struggling, that is unfortunate. It’s the cards we’re have to play right now,” said Honeycutt. “It’s been my stance that kids should come, back but do whatever it takes to educate your child, because education is their future.”

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