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Mecklenburg County’s older students to stay at home, for now

SoVaNow.com / October 21, 2020

Mecklenburg County high and middle school students will continue to stay at home for remote learning after Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols advised keeping the county’s secondary schools closed due to the covid pandemic.

Nichols offered his recommendation Monday night at the monthly meeting of the school board with what he said was a “heavy heart,” dashing hopes among some that the county’s older students could return to their classrooms, much like children in the elementary grades who have been attending in-person school four days a week.

School Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt and trustee Wanda Bailey received no support from fellow trustees in their push to reopen the secondary schools for in-person learning.

Bailey’s motion for a plan to be developed for face-to-face learning in the upper grades starting Nov. 9 failed for lack of a second. Nichols emphasized that if secondary students are invited to attend in-person school in the second semester, “it will still be a parent’s choice.”

Nichols shared his concern that parents’ reticence with having their child at school “may continue for another year or two.” At the same time, he worried that “some parents are choosing virtual learning, but their kids need to be in school.”

The superintendent’s recommendation comes as COVID-19 has already affected school operations in the county. At one of the secondary schools, not identified by Nichols, there are currently eight teachers and 10 students in quarantine after a student contracted COVID-19 and exposed 17 others in the building. At another school, a teacher who contracted the disease has been hospitalized and placed on a ventilator.

Most of the board — Ricky Allgood, Dora Garner, Lindell Palmer, Brent Richey, and Gloria Smith — agreed with Nichols and urged caution. Trustees Rob Campbell and Glenn Edwards were not at Monday night’s meeting due to family issues.

Bailey said she was looking for a way for secondary students, particularly those in middle school, to return to in-person classroom learning after interim report cards showed 60 percent of the students received grades of D or F.

Honeycutt repeatedly berated Nichols for having no plan to reopen the schools and noted that upper schools in Lynchburg and Virginia Beach were opening their doors to their students in November.

“The issue is not is there a plan but when is it safe,” said Nichols. Garner, the board’s vice chair, joined in saying, “We’ve had a plan, but it was contingent on bus availability.”

As part of his instructional update, Nichols told trustees that he was looking to offer in-person instruction to secondary students for the second semester. Even then, the students would be on an alternating A/B schedule to avoid overcrowding. He also said the division was still trying to resolve the transportation problems — not enough buses or drivers.

More drivers are needed now that there is a 21-student limit on every 63-passenger bus. “In some cases, we may need three buses on each route,” to bring students to and from school, Nichols explained. The division recently hired several new bus drivers and is again allowing the schools’ paraprofessionals to increase their work hours by assuming bus driving duties in addition to classroom duties.

Bailey said transportation should not be an issue if schools reopen, arguing that “those parents that want their kids back in school will find a way to get their kids there.” Honeycutt dismissed the transportation issue altogether, telling fellow trustees that 95 percent of parents in his South Hill district want their high and middle school kids back in school.

Virginia law does not require school divisions to provide bus service to its students except those with special needs.

Secondary level special education students and those who speak English as a second language returned to in-person learning at the schools in September along with the elementary grades.

Nichols explained that rampant spread of the virus is much less likely to occur at the elementary school level, where smaller numbers of students are contained in one classroom than at the secondary level, where students change classes and interact with a wider group of students and teachers. Allgood, who retired last year after 40 years with the school system, agreed. “Elementary is a different animal. You can control it at the elementary school but not nearly as well at the high school or middle school level,” he said.

Despite all the precautions the division has in place — including having students at the elementary level eat lunch together in their classroom and bringing the music, art and library science instructors to the kids instead of having them move through the halls —Nichols said three classes have had to close for the 14-day quarantine period after the virus was brought into the schools. The single classrooms that were quarantined were at La Crosse, South Hill, and Chase City elementary schools.

Allgood added, “We have a teacher now who is on a ventilator and her husband will be buried in two days. They did not contract the virus at school.”

Nichols said these occurrences of the virus “reinforce a concern that staff has about bringing secondary students back to school. Elementary students are contained but secondary students are not so contained. So, when there is a case, and they are not contained there is a greater increase for spread.”

Nichols acknowledged that around 60 percent of the virtual learning students are having difficulty, a fact borne out by the recent interim reports. He also acknowledged Honeycutt’s claim that the workload for elementary school teachers who are doing double-duty, teaching both in person and virtual classes, is far greater than that of some of the secondary level teachers who only have virtual students.

Left unsaid was the fact that there are several high and middle school teachers – those teaching special education or ESL students – who have an equally taxing workload since they too teach virtual and in-person classes.

Richey noted, “Talking about the load on elementary teachers won’t change by bringing back the secondary [students],” Richey said, in response to Honeycutt’s view that elementary teachers were carrying a heavier workload.

Richey also pointed out that the chance for teachers to be exposed to the virus at the secondary level is far greater than in the elementary schools since secondary teachers “will have up to 25 [different] students in three or four classes per day.”

“It is virtually impossible to stop the transmission of a virus in the community,” Bailey replied, before adding that “children are not spreading the virus and if they do get sick, it won’t last as long.”

Nichols agreed that bringing elementary kids back to school in September “proved to be an educational opportunity as well the fact that the schools are the safest place. We’ve had both teachers and students who’ve tested positive and have been for kids to stay in school. In all situation after contact tracing there is evidence that all those infected picked up the virus outside of school.”

Bailey implored Nichols to implement a “phased in approach” that would start with returning sixth grade students to the classroom in early November for a week or two and then sending them back out for virtual learning. “The kids have been out of school so long they’ll need some phasing in.”

Honeycutt added that he was worried about the mental health of students who’ve been away from the classroom since March.

Palmer urged caution and to “be mindful of the danger” when looking to reopen the schools and Smith said the health and safety of the students and the teachers must be a top priority. She urged parents to reinforce the need for kids to wear masks, social distance, and practice good hygiene so that when schools reopen opportunities for community spread of the virus inside the schools are lessened.

In response to Bailey’s claim that virtual learning students were being left behind, Smith —who holds multiple degrees and retired from Mecklenburg County Public Schools as a principal at Boydton Elementary School — spoke of her own education, starting out school in a segregated one-room school to show that students can thrive even under difficult learning situations.

Garner placed blame for those students who are struggling on the parents who she said need to take more responsibility for their child’s education. “There is after school tutoring available on zoom. If these parents take more responsibility for their own children then they know that their child is or is not doing the work and they will know how that child is progressing.”

Bailey conceded the interim grades may not be an accurate measure of student performance since there was a learning curve with using the virtual learning program, and some technical glitches needed to be ironed out where some students were having difficulty submitting their work.

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