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Halifax County trustees mull start of hybrid schedule / January 11, 2021
The Halifax County School Board will meet tonight for its first meeting of 2021 with plans tentatively in place to bring students back to school two days a week in early February after a nearly year-long absence from the classroom.

The School Board’s January meeting agenda features an organizational vote for a new chair and a vice chair, an advance look at the new school budget and other matters, but the big challenge that loomed over trustees throughout 2020 — under what conditions schools should resume in-person learning — is expected to carry over tonight.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg said trustees have approved plans to reopen grades pre-K-third grade for two-day hybrid classroom attendance once the second semester begins Feb. 2.

“We’ve already decided we’re going to do everything we can do to get back to school on an A/B schedule,” he said.

The first students who will be invited back on the twice-a-week, alternating daily schedule are the youngest elementary learners. That could be followed by students in grades four-five and in the “transitional grades” of sixth and ninth — so called because the students will be attending a new school as they advance up the secondary ladder.

“If you get kids in [the classroom] two days every week it’s better than nothing,” said Lineburg.

All families will have the option of keeping their students at home for remote learning in the second semester, just as they had in the first semester.

Lineburg said that regardless of how the spring unfolds, no one should expect schools to go back to business as usual this academic year.

“The remainder of this year is going to be about getting students back, however we can do that,” he said.

Lineburg said a number of factors are contributing to rising confidence that classes can safely resume inside school facilities after trustees voted to keep most students at home for remote learning in the first semester.

Among the changes: the Virginia Department of Education is expected to issue new guidance in coming days that shows the effectiveness of measures such as social distancing in protecting students and staff.

“DOE has looked at schools across the Commonwealth and what they have seen in the empirical data is that there has not been substantial spread inside schools where mitigation strategies are in place,” said Lineburg.

Aside from social distancing, common safety measures employed in classrooms include mask wearing, lowering student number through hybrid attendance and other adjustments, and limiting the movement of children inside school buildings.

Another factor that will determine the pace with which students are allowed return is the timetable for inoculating teachers against COVID-19. Lineburg said a survey of teachers and staff was conducted last week to determine how many employees want to receive vaccines.

School officials have submitted that list to the health department, and “the impression I get is that it’s going to be sooner rather than later” in administering vaccines to school employees, said Lineburg. “I’m hoping it will be in the next few weeks.

“It seems to be they’re [Virginia Department of Health] ramping up. I don’t think they’d be asking us for names if they aren’t thinking about getting to our folks.”

However, Lineburg said he has not received a specific timeline for when school staff will actually receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccines.

He also expressed the hope to some small student groups might be invited back for face-to-face classroom learning as soon as Jan. 18. Such groups include high-need special education learners, homeless students and English language learners — students who briefly were brought back to their classrooms in the fall before a worsening pandemic prompted the administration to close all school facilities in November.

Hovering over all the plans for in-person learning is the state of the pandemic in Halifax County — which by all indications is worsening, not easing up.

“It’s really a tough time as far as the health numbers are concerned,” Lineburg acknowledged. He said reopening all grade levels for in-person instruction is “a step-by-step process” and “you always have the power to reassess” plans if the dangers from the virus are too great.

“We want to get students back to school safely. I think the weeks ahead are going to be busy and tough,” he said. Lineburg urged the public to help with slowing the spread of the coronavirus: “If you want kids back in school and you want sports and all that, everybody’s got to do their part. We’ve got to get healthier.”

In other items on tonight’s meeting agenda:

» School Board members will receive a briefing from Interim finance director Robert Aylor on the upcoming 2021-22 budget. Lineburg said it’s too early to tell how much funding will be available from the state for school operations, but he doesn’t foresee drastic changes. Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget includes a two percent one-time bonus for teachers.

» Trustees also will vote on a chairman and vice chairman to lead the board in 2021. The current chair and vice chair are Todd Moser and Sandra Garner-Coleman. Terms are for one year.

Tonight’s School Board meeting will be held at the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria starting at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will be streamed live via the School Board’s Facebook page.

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