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Halifax trustees nix plan to return special education learners to classroom / September 15, 2020
An administration plan to slowly reopen Halifax County Public Schools in coming weeks was cut short when a divided school board nixed the first proposed step — bringing back the county’s most severely disabled students, a cohort most in need of face-to-face learning with teachers and therapists in the classroom.

Trustees deadlocked 4-4 on a vote to resume in-person learning for 169 students in greatest need of special education services — those with IEPs (Individualized Educational Program plans) that call for one-on-one instruction with teachers, paraprofessionals and therapists. These students are deemed most vulnerable to the loss of educational services, along with other student groups, albeit to a lesser degree, such as the youngest pupils in pre-K through third grade, and ESL (English as a second language) and homeless students.

The return of special education learners was intended to mark the first phase of a reopening plan offered for debate at the trustees’ monthly meeting Monday night at the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria. The plan envisions waves of student groups returning to the classroom on a staggered timetable, from the end of September to the beginning of December. The plan called for special education learners to return to school as early as Sept. 21.

But an unbridgeable divide among trustees kept the plan from going anywhere with the failed tie vote — with trustees splitting into two camps, between pushing for the partial resumption of classes, and warning of the potential consequences with COVID-19 spreading in Halifax County.

In an emotionally fraught, nearly four-hour meeting, trustees heard pleas from a handful of parents who described their despair at seeing their developmentally delayed children stuck at home, unable to engage in learning on a computer — with one family saying they don’t even have internet within range of their Virgilina household.

Kristina Lloyd, whose seven-year-old son is autistic, spoke with her child and his service dog, Jessie, perched by her side on the floor. For special education children like her son Will, “trying to sit him down at a computer to do schoolwork does not work,” she said emphatically. If not for the efforts of his teachers and school-based therapists as Will has gotten older, he “wouldn’t be potty trained right now.”

Another mom, Holly Comer — whose son Wyatt suffers from sotos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leaves him unable to talk or control basic motor functions — described the sense of helplessness at seeing her son’s school shuttered due to the pandemic. Comer said her son has made tremendous progress at South Boston Elementary, where he has received therapy and educational instruction since age 2-1/2, and she praised HCPS for the services the division “graciously” provides.

Trying to fill the void in her son’s life with school closed is all but impossible, Comer told trustees, especially since both she and her husband work full-time. “I am no teacher and my son should not have to suffer because of this.”

She said Wyatt is incapable of learning in front of a computer, and the family has no reliable internet service at their Virgilina home to start with.

“The thought of where my son may be after missing more educational time as a parent scares me,” said Comer. She said her son’s only hope for communicating with others is to learn sign language, which Comer said she and her husband do not know and are incapable of teaching. With the help of his teachers and therapists, Wyatt should be able to learn to speak in sign language. “He will finally get a voice.”

But that won’t happen if her child can’t go to school, Comer continued.

“I implore you to reconsider allowing the SPED [special education] program to return to face-to-face learning,” Comer told trustees. “Especially with just one [self-contained] class per school, there ought to be no reason they cannot socially distance.

“There are many teachers who want these children back in the school system — they see this every day, they know [special learners’] struggles and their victories.” Comer added. “If these people who are going to be in the trenches so to speak are willing to do whatever they can to provide that safe and clean learning environment, why do you feel you cannot allow it?

“When was the last time one of you stepped into a special education classroom?” she pointedly asked board members.

Such pleas, by Comer, Lloyd, and Mike Trent, a third speaker and father of an IEP student with a speech disability, clearly weighed on trustees as they opened discussion of the phased reopening plan presented by Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg. One trustee, ED-4 member Jay Camp, responded to Comer’s words with an admission: “I haven’t been in a special education class,” he said. “So they’re right, I don’t know.”

Camp said he attended a memorial Sunday at the high school for 2020 HCHS graduate Justyce Reid, who died earlier this month at age 18 of complications related to COVID-19. “Yesterday when I was standing at the high school and watching the hearse go by, that was a very emotional day for me,” said Camp. “It’s still an emotional day for me. But to see these children tonight, and their mamas …. the strength of the mother is equally as emotional for me as what happened yesterday.”

Camp stumbled over his next words and then fell silent in anguish. Gathering his emotions, he continued, “These children are at a disadvantage. They have a shot at life and a shot at education. I’m very, very, very, just very conflicted about this whole thing …. There’s the statistical and the logical and the analytical part, but you know what? It comes down to just basic compassion for your fellow human being.

“These children definitely the need the human touch, they need their teachers, and I think it can be done with social distancing.”

Camp and Board Chair Todd Moser, ED-6, joined ED-7 and ED-2 trustees Keith McDowell and Roy Keith Lloyd in voting to allow the small number of acutely-disabled SPED students back into their classrooms. McDowell and Lloyd were on the losing end of a 6-2 vote in August as trustees opted to start the school year with all students learning remotely at home. On Monday night, Lloyd renewed his arguments that the board erred a month ago with full remote learning.

“I’m listening to the parents — they have lived this life,” said Lloyd, referring to the speakers in the audience. In his own contacts with parents, Lloyd said, “everyone was begging, I would almost say pleading, to allow their children back into school because they felt the vulnerabilities were greater not being in school.”

He urged fellow members not to substitute their judgment for that of the parents of disabled learners.

“We need to allow the parents who live this life to make the decisions they think are in their child’s best interests. All of us have an appreciation for the children, but not one person in this room will have the best interests of the child at heart any more than the parents will,” Lloyd said.

But ED-9 trustee Walter Potts offered a different response, turning to one parent and saying, “I see your child, darling, I do — but please understand that, we know better than you do.” As a parent broke out in tears, and others called out in protest, Potts said to another member of the audience, “I understand your frustration, sir, and I’m sorry — I can understand that. But we’ve got to look at this and not be all emotional about it. Because if we do, we’re going to regret what we do.”

As the pathogen’s spread picks up in Halifax County — the current positivity rate for COVID-19 testing exceeds 12 percent, more than twice the benchmark rate the CDC suggests for school closures — Potts argued it remains too risky to send students back to class. “I know you want to [get students back in school] and everybody wants to get them over here … but we’ve got to look at the data. If we don’t look at the data and go on emotions, we’re going to make some serious mistakes.”

Trustees Sandra Garner-Coleman and Freddie Jeffress, representing ED-3 and ED-5 respectively, offered similar comments, as did ED-1 trustee Kathy Fraley, who taught special needs students for 33 years before she retired from teaching. Fraley said she has been talking with parents about their concerns, but teachers, too, who “are in the classroom every day. They’re frightened.

“They’re frightened that the children they teach are going to get sick, they are frightened they’re going to get sick and take this back home to their families.”

Fraley said she keeps thinking back to a video she has seen of a young COVID-19 patient “who lived for eight days after contracting the virus, and it stays with me when we come and we meet and we discuss. [This is] a decision we should not be making — none of us are doctors, none of us are nurses, and none of us have any idea about health other than the common general stuff we know.”

Fraley, Edmunds, Garner-Coleman and Potts voted no on a motion by Lloyd to bring the 169 SPED students back for in-person school starting Sept. 21. Lloyd, McDowell, Camp and Moser voted for the unsuccessful motion. Tie votes fail.

The 169 severely disabled learners are part of a much larger overall population of special needs learners, most of whom are mainstreamed in regular classrooms and would return to school with the general population.

Trustees did vote, by a 5-3 margin, to allow a small group of students to return to classes — some two dozen high school students who are enrolled at the SVHEC Career Tech Academy, which offers welding, mechatronics, and IT training.

After a prolonged discussion of other issues — including setting a timetable for in-school, federally-mandated evaluations to determine program eligibility for 51 potential special needs learners — trustees informally agreed to meet again in a couple of weeks to see where the school division stands with COVID-19, and whether public health conditions will allow students to trickle back into school.

This story will be updated.

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