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Halifax moves forward with hybrid school plan, despite parent protests

South Boston News
Ciera Elliott, working mother of three adopted children, spoke at the Halifax County School Board meeting, asking trustees, "Who is going to teach my kids?" / July 14, 2020
With Halifax County’s back-to-school date now officially set for Sept. 8, administrators and the school board are sticking to plans to offer a mix of classroom and at-home instruction for most students, despite pleas by some parents for a more normal experience.

“We’re going to do our best to get your children back in school,” said chairman Todd Moser after a handful of parents spoke up at a trustees’ meeting Monday night in support of students going back for the fall semester on a four- or five-day schedule. “You’ve got to work with us because we’re having to work with a whole lot of different things that’s going on in the world.

“Give us some time to work the details out,” pleaded Moser. “Nothing is set in stone at this time. Nothing.”

The vexing decisions for the school board — between sending kids back to school and potentially exposing them and adult employees to a COVID-19 outbreak, and holding them out of class for up to three days a week and stunting their educational and emotional development — hung over three hours of detailed and often somber discussion as trustees met at Halifax County Middle School.

Although several parents conceded the risks of sending their students back to school full-time, they argued that keeping kids at home can be risky, too — and many families want five-day school.

The speakers found an ally in ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell, who called effort spent trying to educate students online “a waste.” “Four days, or five days, I think that’s what we need,” he said.

But vice chairman Sandra Garner-Coleman, while thanking parents for their input, expressed that she was “a little bit disappointed” that advocates for a full-time school week are not taking “into consideration that we have to think about our bus drivers, our custodians, our cafeteria workers, our support staff and our administrators.” Many teachers, she added, have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus.

“If we lose our teaching staff, no one will be in school,” Garner-Coleman said.

Moser pointed out that school officials are having to plan for a school year that could be wiped out entirely if the pandemic surges.

“If something happens in the next month, we’ll likely be back in Phase 1” of Virginia’s emergence from a statewide shutdown, said Moser. If that happens, the effect on the fall semester is clear, he added: “No school.”

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg and Central Office administrators laid out in considerable detail the preliminary plans for the new year — stressing that nothing is definite. They also reviewed survey information from parents who, by a 2-to-1 margin, say they want their children to attend school in person in the coming year. Parents who’d rather keep their children at home for health and safety reasons will have the option of full-time virtual learning.

Monday night’s presentations by administrators touched on numerous likely changes — from the number of socially distanced students that can fit in a school bus (12 if students don’t wear masks, 23 if they are required to), to the number of students who can safely attend the high school each day. Administrators also offered some new wrinkles in prior plans for hybrid instruction, such as the idea of freeing up space at Halifax County High School by sending 12th graders to the STEM Center in Halifax for “Senior Academy.”

“We’re doing our best trying to create a model that meets a variety of needs,” said Lineburg. “We have vulnerable students and vulnerable staff that are a significant concern.”

About a half-dozen parents who spoke at the meeting urged a more straightforward approach: “My proposal — five days a week, in person,” said Lacey Shotwell, one of the parents who spoke, adding, “Please, please consider letting our kids come back to school.”

Pointing to research that suggests children are the least susceptible of all age groups to COVID-19 and unlikely to spread the virus to teachers and staff, Shotwell lamented that “for months, we’ve been ruled by fear of the unknown” and argued that teachers and support staff are essential workers, same as the employees who have kept Lowe’s and Walmart open throughout the lockdown period.

“We need them to be able to come back to work. We need our kids to be able to go back to school. The numbers [for local infections] just don’t justify keeping our schools closed,” said Shotwell.

Another parent, Beth Farmer, described the disappointment of her two children when the spring semester was cut short in March and their distress at the idea of not being able to return full-time in the fall.

“You cannot live in fear. Our children, our flowers, need to grow, they need to blossom, they need to socialize,” said Farmer, who started a Facebook page, Stand Up For Children, with fellow parent Stephanie Baylous Culley to advocate for a full-time school schedule.

Scoffing at the idea of virtual learning at home — Farmer said she installed an expensive booster system to improve her Alton home’s shoddy internet access, to no avail — she urged the School Board to prioritize educational continuity with a four- or five-day schedule. “These kids need to be at school on a regular pattern, on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

“My kids don’t even have video games. They don’t sit down and watch TV and watch a video screen on a regular basis,” continued Farmer, criticizing the planned shift to online instruction. “That’s going to be a whole new learning curve for them.”

Steve Hudson raised another point in his brief remarks to trustees: By keeping kids at home three days a week for virtual learning and having them in the classroom the other two days, many families will have little choice but to rely on grandparents and elderly relatives for day care while parents are at work. Being in the classroom some days, and around senior citizens at other times, pushes up the risk that more old people will contract the virus.

“Grandma is 75 years old. She’s a lot more susceptible to Corona,” he said.

Ciera Elliott, a 26-year-old mother of three adopted children, said her six-days-a-week job at the post office doesn’t leave her with time to stay home with her kids — each of whom has different educational needs. Pointing to her daughter, whom she described as an eager learner, Elliott asked, “How I am going to keep a kid who’s a straight-A student, who is going to be a doctor” moving forward without school?

Her other children have different academic and emotional needs, but her dilemma remains the same, said Elliott. “How are you guys going to provide me with help? Am I going to have to get another job to pay for a tutor? Who is going to teach my kids?

“Obviously I adopted them because they need love and attention,” she said of her children. “I would love nothing more than to see my kids five days a week.”

Steve Salley of Halifax, another parent with children in the system, said a voice has been missing in the debate — that of students themselves.

Although the Central Office has gathered data on parents’ preferences for the new school year through an online questionnaire, “the kids are the ones who should have been surveyed,” said Salley. “The kids want to be back in school. I have not talked to any kid who does not want to be back in five-day school.”

Salley brought up the debate on a local sales tax to pay for the modernization of HCHS, referring to comments at the time by Lineburg that the high school serves as “the hub of the county.” “If the school is the hub of the county, we need to put the spokes back on and get the wheel rolling and attend school on a regular basis,” he said.

Offering a counterpoint was Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the Halifax County NAACP branch, who said “what should influence our decisions about our children are safety first, and then health care next.

“We are in perilous times,” said Coleman-Brown, who spoke on behalf of the local NAACP. “When these children come back to school, they are going to be anxious, therefore their mental health is at a very important stage that we must be aware of. Their physical health must be monitored.

“It is not about what is convenient, it is not about what the public wants, but it should be data driven as to what we need to do, based on the research,” she said.

A further priority, she said, should be the “equitable protection of our instructional staff” from the effects of the pandemic.

At times, trustees sounded a despairing note on the challenges ahead with returning students to school — and keeping them there. After hearing from parents, Garner-Coleman said school officials are “working overtime” in “unchartered waters” to protect the health of those inside school buildings at the same time the division develops a viable plan for student education.

“I just don’t want to have to attend any child’s funeral on my watch,” she said. “Pray for us.”

ED-8 trustee Walter Potts, who also expressed opposition to a full-scale reopening, said he was sympathetic to complaints by parents that poor internet access will make online learning for their children difficult if not impossible. Potts unloaded on the group he identified as the culprit — a Board of Supervisors “too doggone cheap to put [broadband service] out there.”

Potts also pushed back at the perception among that trustees are unwilling to listen to public sentiment in favor of full-time school. “People say we’re going to do what we want to do. We’re going to do what’s best for the kids; that’s what we’re going to do.”

McDowell, however, faulted the Central Office for not asking parents about their preference for the new school year when the survey was sent out to determine if families plan to send their students back to school or keep them at home for online learning.

“Most constituents in my area, District 7, want four or five days a week,” he said. “Why can’t we put out another survey on that?”

ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd jumped into the discussion with a proposal for the School Board to meet in a work session in early August to assess the school reopening plan at that time. Lloyd also urged bringing in a representative of the Virginia Department of Health who can advise school officials on the risks of bringing students back to school.

“I would say this issue is much larger than what we can tackle in a business meeting,” said Lloyd, calling the challenges “painfully clear.”

Lloyd proposed holding the work session one week ahead of the Aug. 10 monthly meeting of the School Board, and his motion passed handily. Other trustees suggested it may take more than one work session.

“Time is running by pretty quickly and things are happening with this virus,” said ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley.

Lineburg stressed that the school division continues to refine its plans for the school year and “we’ve gotten good feedback” on how to proceed from families, educators and others in the community. He emphasized, however, that school officials will follow the recommendations of the CDC for safely reopening schools and adhere to “the singular guidance” of the 136-page “Recover, Redesign, Restart” plan by the Virginia Department of Education.

“One thing I think we’ve done well over the years is we listen to our community, and we will continue to listen to our community,” said Lineburg.

“These are the toughest circumstances we’ve dealt with in about 30 years,” he said. “We’re doing our very, very best. Everything you say, we take into account, and we’ll continue to do our best.”

Starting next week, the school division will host online “town hall” forums with administrators and teachers explaining some of the measures that students and families can expect when school resumes after Labor Day. Members of the public will have the opportunity to register online so they can ask questions at the meeting, which will be conducted via Zoom chat and Facebook Live, said Director of Student Services Jeff Davis.

Although specifics with the 2020-21 school year remain to be hashed out, trustees took one concrete action on Monday night — voting to set the first day of school on Sept. 8, the Tuesday after Labor Day. The revised calendar calls for the school year to end on June 16, 2021, with graduation slated three days later, on Saturday, June 19.

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As everyone discusses the reopening plans of schools there's one big picture issues no one is addressing. The kids and parents are out and about, socializing and in big box stores daily. If you don't believe me go to Lowe's or Walmart. Those places have never had to close, are filled with people and are germ factories. I would rather see kids in school in a learning environment with daily temperatures taken around a school nurse than out in the world. School is the absolute best place for young people right now with proper controls and safeguards in place. People need to wake up to reality and see where infection is really occurring. You may or may not agree with this but very few people are staying at home or properly social distancing. Now would be a perfect time to begin work on the HCHS while kids are at home. Seems they got the new sales tax and forgotten their promise to the taxpayers. Why not use this time wisely and get the school construction contracts underway?


No decision about reopening was made. They repeatedly stated the plan outline was preliminary and not final.

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