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Chances dim for Halifax County schools to reopen with new semester / January 14, 2021
Pointing to the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the county, Halifax County Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg all but shot down the possibility that schoolchildren will return to the classroom when the second semester begins Feb. 2.

Saying there is “no way” he will reopen school facilities with the pandemic worsening at the rate it is now, Lineburg made an open plea to the public to do more to stop the spread of the coronavirus that has claimed more than 380,000 lives around the U.S.

“It’s critical to get kids back to school,” said Lineburg. “To do that, everybody needs to help us.”

The School Board voted in October to start bringing students back to school buildings for a hybrid, two-day weekly class schedule with the start of the second semester in February. Trustees had hoped to first invite back the youngest pupils in the system, pre-K through third grade, who are in greatest need of socialization and face-to-face instruction by teachers.

The next group that educators hoped to bring back consists of students in the sixth and ninth graders, making the transition to new secondary schools.

The School Board voted on that policy in late October at a time when the test positivity rate for COVID-19 in the Southside Health District stood at 3.6 percent. The test positivity in the three-county health district is now 15.5 percent.

In Halifax alone, the test positivity currently exceeds 20 percent. Halifax is part of the Southside Health District with Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties.

Through Wednesday, the COVID-19 caseload in Halifax County stood at 1,446, with 45 deaths attributed to the disease. On Oct. 26, the caseload was 510 people.

“We need those numbers to turn around” before the school division will invite students to come back into school buildings, said Lineburg.

While the School Board’s policy to begin a two-day classroom schedule in the spring formally remains in place, Lineburg likened his decision to keep schools closed due to the virus to the call he makes during inclement weather to keep students at home.

“I’m cautious on snow days and I’ll be cautious on these days,” he said.

Even if the pandemic subsides to a level that allows students to return safely to school, Lineburg said the rest of the school year will be bumpy going, if students are able to step foot in school at all. “This year is not going to be business as usual,” he said.

Lineburg did express hope that teachers and school employees will soon be able to receive vaccinations, based on conversations he has had with health department officials. Halifax County Public Schools has surveyed employees to determine how many are willing to be inoculated, and HCPS has turned over those names to the health department so it can order the appropriate number of doses.

“They’ve got the survey, so they know how many inoculations to give to our employees. That’s why we think it’s going to be soon,” Lineburg said.

He and others lamented the harm being inflicted on students and their families from missing out on school. Offering first-person testimony to that fact was HCHS senior Kathyrn Allen, who was tapped last year for the new role of student liaison to the School Board. Allen told trustees that students of all ages are suffering by being at home instead of in school, but the alternative — getting sick with a potentially deadly illness — would be worse.

Allen said she expects to lose the rest of the 2020-21 school year, which would mean seniors like her at would miss out on two proms and their high school graduation. The youngest students in elementary schools may have it even worse, she added, since they have no prior school experience to fall back on as they attempt to learn at home.

Nevertheless, “I’d rather them [the youngest pupils] miss a year of their education than step into a graveyard” if a student went back to school, caught the virus and died, she said.

Allen questioned why students have been brought back in recent weeks to take their SOL tests — an exception to the rule that school buildings are to remain closed — and ED-9 trustee Walter Potts picked up on her point, calling the return for testing “utterly ridiculous.”

Replied Lineburg: “Anybody who knows me knows I’ve never been for standardized tests. I’m offended by it. [But] at this point, we’re under mandate to do it” by the Virginia Department of Education, which has been directed by the U.S. Department of Education to carry out the high-stakes SOL tests despite the pandemic.

To lower the risk of virus spread, students are being brought back by appointment only and take the tests in small numbers, socially distanced in classrooms. Mask wearing is mandatory.

The subject of masks summoned some sharp remarks by trustees, aimed at two members, Roy Keith Lloyd of ED-2 and Keith McDowell of ED-7, who do not wear masks during socially-distanced School Board meetings. Potts and Sandra Garner Coleman accused the mask-less trustees of setting a poor example at a time when the board is asking the public to exercise greater caution to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“When we’re in this board room, we need to have board members with their masks on,” said Potts.

Kathy Fraley, who was named chair of the School Board for 2021, noted that she has a cousin who lives in North Carolina with her husband, and they have both gotten sick with COVID-19. Both went to the ER to find out “how difficult their time will be for the next 14 days,” said Fraley. “I hope it doesn’t go any further than that.”

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