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First day back, under a different normal

South Boston News
Students and staff donned masks for back-to-school day on Monday at South Boston Elementary. Schools opened for pupils in grades pre-K through three, and for smaller groups that attended class back in the fall. (Liza Fulton photo) / February 25, 2021
It was back to school time Monday in Halifax County, a late summer ritual that instead took place in the winter — and that’s not all that was different about the day.

Teachers and staff at South Boston Elementary gathered at the curb to greet arriving students in grades pre-K-three, the first large cohort of students to be invited back to school buildings since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of school in March 2020. But the customary hugs for elementary students were replaced by temperature checks and checklists that let the staff know whether the students were indeed part of the “A day” group that will attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays. The B group will be in class Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monday morning was frigid, with temperatures in the low 30s. Several students who rode to school seated in the front seats of their vehicles, directly in front of the heat vents, checked in with temperatures of over a 100 because hot air had been blowing in their faces. After cooling down, body temperatures were collected from their wrists rather than foreheads and students were then cleared to enter the building.

Everyone wore masks, another big difference from previous years.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg said first-week enrollment is roughly in line with what school officials projected — not quite half the normal number of students. With the A/B hybrid schedule, that means roughly a quarter of the usual student body will be inside school buildings on a given day.

“I think the numbers are about what we expected,” he said.

The decision has not been an easy one for many families that must choose between their children attending school for two days of in-class instruction, or sticking to all-virtual learning, which was mandated during the first semester for all but a handful of students. For some families, having their students back in school two days a week was the only option to allow them to return to the workforce.

A mother of a second grader returning to South Boston Elementary on Monday said her daughter has been struggling with virtual schooling and “not taking it seriously — this behavior was not there before it all went virtual. I’m in hopes these two days will regain her focus.”

Several parents said they understand there is risk for teachers and others who have not been vaccinated of contracting the virus. The unvaccinated population is large and there are new positive COVID-19 cases every day, despite recent declines in the transmission of the virus in Halifax County. This week, the Virginia Department of Health reported three more covid-related deaths in the county, the latest coming on Wednesday. The disease is blamed in the deaths of 59 people in Halifax.

Parents who sent their children back to school offered various reasons for their decision, commonly pointing to the feeling that their students are falling way behind academically. Many parents see sports going forward and are hopeful schools can operate safely by following CDC guidelines for wearing face masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.

“I understand the conflicts of many parents who have had to choose between work or home, and I empathize with them, but I cannot stop giving God praise that we are able to do what so many cannot,” said Tina Wyatt Younger of being able to stay home with her sixth grade son as he learns online.

Maintaining the virtual path has been a clear-cut decision for other parents.

One mother, after seeing how confusing hybrid education was Monday morning for her kindergartener, said “I’m glad I made the decision to keep him virtual. I felt really sorry for the teacher as she was struggling to maintain both the virtual kids and the two, yes, two kids in her class engaged. She was doing an awesome job, but just trying to maintain both I could tell it was a struggle,” said the mother.

“Although, I do know that my son needs the interaction, his health is much more important to me,” said the mother, who wished to remain anonymous. The mother expressed that her son attended pre-school and the Early Learning Center, and this is the first year since starting school that her son has not gotten sick.

“We have been the entire winter, thus far with no doctor visits. This is primary reason that we are keeping him home,” said the mother. Before virtual learning, “we were at the doctor’s office a lot.”

Several parents of children who can attend in-person class at Halifax County Middle School beginning March 8 said they decided it was best to keep their students at home. They said their children have done fine with virtual learning and stayed healthy, and the added stress to adhering to mask wearing and other CDC guidelines is too much.

“I have decided to keep my son home to continue his learning virtually. This is his first year attending the middle school and yes, we are disappointed he was not afforded the opportunity as I had growing up, but he understands fully we are not living in those times right now,” said Wyatt Younger. “I do not feel comfortable with him being in a closed environment with people who may or may not believe in masking, social distancing, or the virus on any given day.”

The mother of the kindergartener student who asked to remain anonymous has a daughter in the sixth grade, too. The decision to keep her at home for the second semester is more complicated than with the younger child, but ultimately it came down to her health too.

“We decided that since she has been at home and maintaining all A’s that it was in itself enough to justify keeping her all virtual,” said the mother.

Lineburg said he is confident that the HCPS teaching staff will adapt to the hybrid mode of partly in-person, partly at-home learning, praising how “they work so hard.” But he said the burden on teachers cannot be borne forever. “You have kids who are face-to-face and on the computer at the same time. If you think that’s not a challenge — it’s an unbelievable challenge.

“You have to do one or the other. We have to see how covid plays out,” he said. “What they [teachers] are doing is unbelievable. It’s not sustainable in the long run.”

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