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Halifax County Trustees keep students at home to start off school year

SoVaNow.com / August 13, 2020
The Halifax County School Board voted 6-2 Monday night to start off the school year with distance learning for all students at home — making Halifax the latest locality in Virginia to keep its school doors shut in an effort to protect the health of students and staff.

As part of the motion to adopt full distance learning with the start of the 2020-21 school year, trustees agreed to reassess their position after four weeks in the hope that students can return to classrooms after the first nine weeks grading period. Top priority would go to bringing back K-2 and special education students.

“We’ve got to get kids back in for face-to-face learning as soon as we can,” said Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg.

As they offered their views on the best path forward, several trustees spoke with open anguish about the decision they were being asked to make. Noting he has three grandchildren who attend Halifax County Public Schools — and “they love school” — ED-4 trustee Jay Camp mused about how difficult it is for them to not go back to class this fall.

But Camp said he was thinking of people like himself — “I’m 63 years old, I’m overweight, I’m diabetic,” he said. He also is a regular presence in his grandchildren’s lives. “What if they come home with the disease?”

Reopening schools, he said, would put children at risk, endanger teachers and school employees, and spread the virus to families and others like himself who have health conditions, Camp suggested.

“There’s 5,000 students in Halifax County. We have to look after every one of them. I don’t think we’re in a position where we can play with [the spread of COVID-19],” Camp said.

ED-5 trustee Freddie Edmunds was more blunt, likening a decision to reopen schools to exposing children to mortal danger. “Why [would] we send these kids into a burning building knowing they’re going to get sick?” he asked.

“I refuse to sit here and be a part of that,” Edmunds said.

The motion to start off the year with remote learning at home was introduced by Vice Chair Sandra Garner-Coleman and seconded by Edmunds. Both voted in favor of the plan along with Camp, ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts and Board Chairman Todd Moser of ED-6.

The two “no” votes were cast by Roy Keith Lloyd of ED-2 and Keith McDowell of ED-7. Lloyd argued for adopting the hybrid instructional plan that Lineburg, Central Office administrators and school leadership teams have developed over the past several months. That plan would return most students to their school buildings two days a week, with K-2 students and special education learners attending school four days a week. Families would have the option of full-time distance learning at home.

Lloyd urged fellow trustees to consider not only the educational impact of keeping schools closed, but also the economic impact — citing the fact the school division is one of the top local employers. “We would be adding to an already struggling economy in Halifax County,” said Lloyd of a decision to keep schools closed.

Lloyd also voiced skepticism that distance learning will be successful, pointing to the burdens parents and caregivers will have take on to help their children learn at home — all as they have jobs to worry about.

“Here we are six months down the road [since schools closed in March] and I don’t think that that’s a reasonable expectation to place on parents who are not professional educators,” Lloyd said. Remote learning is not the answer for other reasons, he added, foremost of which is lack of reliable internet access in many parts of the county.

“I think simply we don’t have the infrastructure in Halifax County to support virtual learning or distance learning or anything like that,” he said.

McDowell, who drew the ire of Garner-Coleman and Potts for not wearing a mask to the meeting — the second monthly session in a row that their conflict has burst out into the open — said he disapproved of both the distance learning option and the hybrid instructional plan developed by the school administration. “I’m for four days a week,” said McDowell.

“It’s not just our decision, it’s parents’ decision, too,” he said. “They’ve got to get to work. They’ve got to pay the bills. If we don’t go to school, how are they going to pay those bills?

“We’ve got to get back to our lives. We can’t just lay down and die,” said McDowell, arguing that bringing students and staff back to the classroom is no different than people shopping at WalMart or playing in ball tournaments.

Fraley, a retired educator, made the opposite point — that students and teachers spend extended time together in closed indoor spaces, raising the risks of spreading the virus. “A school and a classroom are two different environments than a WalMart or a ballfield,” said Fraley, calling it “not a good comparison.

“I feel it would be best to go with virtual the first nine weeks until we understand where we are.” Fraley observed that trustees can close schools and never know if they overreacted, “but it would be quite apparent if we underestimate [the dangers] and do too little.”

Prior to the vote by trustees, Lineburg explained that a two-day hybrid plan would come with “tipping points” for deciding when and if to close schools in the event of a virus outbreak. Under his recommendations, the superintendent should be granted the authority to close schools, without immediate School Board review, if more than one case of COVID-19 surfaced at a school. Lineburg also recommended that he be granted the authority to close all schools in the division, depending on public health trends in the county.

“We may have to call [the equivalent] of a snow day, snow days, snow weeks under this model,” he said.

Lineburg expressed confidence that the hybrid model — two days in school, three days at home for most students — strikes a proper balance between the educational needs of students and keeping children and adults safe. But he also voiced frustration with the lack of guidance on health and safety issues, singling out the state health department and the Southside District office for particular criticism. “In my entire career, I never thought I’d be the one to go through health data,” he said.

“We have received little or no data from the Virginia Department of Health,” Lineburg said.

Ultimately, trustees took the matter into their own hands, voting to keep schools closed and students at home until they feel comfortable that 6,000 students and staff with Halifax County Public Schools can go back to school safely.

“Our [infection] rate is going up. It’s not going to come down,” said Edmunds. “How many kids are going to have to get sick and die before you listen to that?”



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