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Mecklenburg schools run into challenges but celebrate opening

SoVaNow.com / September 23, 2020
Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols told trustees during Monday’s meeting of the School Board that the first day of classes Sept. 8 went “very well.”

“I don’t think I have seen students as excited to get back to school as I did this year. The kids were missing their friends and wanted some regularity and the teachers were equally excited,” Nichols said, while also admitting there were some challenges both leading up to the first day and during the first week.

Students in grades pre-K through five were able to return to in-person learning four days a week as of Sept. 8. Secondary students started their virtual classes that same day.

Some members of the public questioned the decision to reopen the schools when Mecklenburg County was deemed by health officials to be in the highest risk level for the spread of the disease (red risk level), and other county government offices were closed. Nichols explained that the shift into the “red” risk level did not occur until the Sunday before the start of school, “so we could not turn around at that point.

“Thankfully, the following Sunday night we were back in orange” — the next lowest risk level, Nichols added, noting too that the number of confirmed cases in the county continues to trend downward.

Nichols said the school division is also closely monitoring students enrolled in virtual learning that have yet to respond to their teachers for purposes of attendance. “We have strict guidelines for our kids involved in virtual learning,” he explained.

As of Monday night, only 31 out of nearly 4,000 students had not contacted anyone at the school division, and Nichols said teachers and others were making house calls to check on these students.

Nichols said the division is also closely monitoring students and staff for COVID-19 infections. Those with suspected or confirmed cases or who have contact with someone with confirmed cases are placed into quarantine. “We are following CDC guidelines,” Nichols said.

There have been a couple of COVID-19 cases at the schools, Nichols acknowledged, and contact tracing meant the teachers had to quarantine for 14 days. If they are not feeling ill, Nichols said, they are continuing to teach remotely, and their students are expected to participate in the lessons.

School Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt asked when the division is considering bringing the secondary students back for in-person classes. Nichols said while he would like for that to happen before the end of the first nine weeks of school, that is not likely. The division is still working through transportation and other issues.

Parents who are on the waiting list to receive WiFi hotspot devices should expect a call from the school now that new devices have come in from Verizon. Nichols said he’s aware that in some areas of the county, the Verizon devices will not work. An additional 50 hotspots are on order from AT&T for households within that coverage area. Homes with no cellphone service will not receive a hotspot as they are of no use in areas where cell service does not exist.

The division is still working out the best method for delivering lessons to students in those locations. One solution may be for the students to come to one of the four secondary school gymnasiums, as these are being turned into cyber cafes. Students can sign up to use the space for up to two hours per day. The number of students allowed inside the gym at one time is limited to 90.

Nichols said he was pleased to hear that the county will be spending a sizable portion of its CARES Act money to expand broadband service by installing additional cell towers.

Trustee Wanda Bailey, in addition to thanking teachers for their exceptional work this year, stressed to parents the importance of viewing this year’s schooling as a partnership “between the household and the classroom.”

She asked Nichols to find an alternate solution to having teachers track down students who were not participating in virtual classes or not turning in their work.

“Our teachers are very busy, and I don’t want them to feel like they have to track these people down,” said Bailey. “Is there a system in place if teachers have tried to contact a couple of times is there someone to take contact over?”

She also asked that elementary teachers not be asked to administer tests to their students during their Friday virtual learning period. She felt this was an undue burden.

Gloria Smith shared concerns she received from parents who have tried to contact the schools and were unable to get through. “Sometimes parents try to contact the schools and if they can’t get anyone, they get overwhelmed. It may be difficult to have the schools have someone answer the phones and at the Central Office, but that should be done,” Smith said.

Delivery of school lunches for those who signed up began Tuesday, for students living on the east end of the county and will start Wednesday, for those living on the west end. Students will receive a week’s worth of food with each delivery.

Nichols reminded parents to be on the lookout for the buses carrying the food to designated bus stops. “Have someone there to pick up the food,” he said, noting that food not picked up must be discarded.

Students who engaged in virtual learning at least five consecutive days will again receive a pandemic EBT benefit this fall. Nichols said those who received the p-EBT card this past spring or summer will have the benefits automatically added to their card sometime between Sept. 30 and Oct. 15. He did not give a total amount of the benefit, but it’s expected to be the same as was received earlier.

The card can be used to purchase food items at any store that accepts SNAP or EBT cards.

Parents who discarded their EBT card after it was used earlier this year can request a replacement card by calling 1-866-281-2448. The Virginia Department of Social Services, the agency issuing the cards, says it will take 7-10 days to issue a new card. Families that already receive SNAP benefits for their children will see the additional benefit loaded onto their existing cards.

Anyone with questions about the program is asked to contact Social Services online at the DSS p-EBT webpage, http://www.dss.virginia.gov/benefit/pebt.cgi.

In other business, Nichols said the current average daily enrollment for the school division stands at 4,083.

He also said there are plans to update the existing student information system by combining all information on a single platform. The cost is nearly $1 million, which will be spread out over five years.

Nichols reminded trustees that the finance office is already preparing the school budget for the 2022 fiscal year. Now was the time for them to suggest specific items to be included in the upcoming budget. He already plans to ask for funding to begin work updating the county’s three oldest elementary schools at La Crosse, Chase City and Clarksville.

He will also ask to have staff salaries “put back on the appropriate scale.”

The construction of the consolidated secondary school building in Baskerville remains on track to finish in the spring of 2022, though grounds work will continue for a couple more months. The final completion date for the entire project is Aug. 1, 2022. Head of operations Brian Dalton said contractors lost about 25 days addressing rock issues and having to do “lime stabilization” at the site after they uncovered an underground aquifer.

Trustees engaged in a protracted discussion about their rules of conduct for board members, which they call their board norms. Trustee Rob Campbell had concerns with the language that required the board to receive a majority vote of its members before the attorney for the board was contacted. It was also not specified in the document how long the penalties for violating the norms would remain in effect.

While the norms specifically prohibit board members from responding to complaints received from staff or the public during or outside of meetings — under the norms these are to be directed to the superintendent for handling — Wanda Bailey said if board members do respond to staff or the public, they should make it clear they are not speaking on behalf of the board.

In the end the board voted 6-2 with one member absent to approve the amended norms that contain a process for reprimanding board members. Those opposed were Rob Campbell and Chair Gavin Honeycutt. Supporting the changes were Gloria Smith, Wanda Bailey, Lindell Palmer, Ricky Allgood and Brent Richey. Glenn Edwards was not present for the vote.

An exchange that took place online between trustee Brent Richey and a parent of a student from South Hill led Nichols to caution board members that if they use their personal computer to address matters on social media and they are speaking as a member of the School Board, that makes all information on their personal computer potentially subject to a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. That would mean the public could seek access to all information on that computer, Nichols said.

It was warning for them to be careful how they use their personal computers and cautious of how they express themselves to the public.

Richey defended his actions, saying he was polite but felt he had an obligation to “call out bad or false or misleading information” especially when it puts the school division in a bad light. “Sometimes you have to say something that people won’t agree with but their reaction pales in comparison to the need to disseminate accurate information.”

Bailey, Gloria Smith and Vice Chair Dora Garner participated in Title IX training regarding the recent changes that went into effect August 14.

Title IX protects every student’s right to educational opportunities and benefits free from sex discrimination. The changes include a definitional change of what constitutes sexual harassment, a change to what triggers a school’s legal obligation to respond and a new procedure outlining how a school must respond to a Title IX complaint.

Bailey said she expects the school division will be issuing new policies to reflect these changes and the requirement that every school division have a transgender bathroom use policy. The Virginia School Board Association has already drafted a model policy that incorporates the changes to Title IX.

Richey predicted this school year would be considered “the roughest year” by teachers. Being a professor himself and the spouse of a high school teacher, he empathized with all teachers and implored them to “hang in there. We appreciate you.”

He also spoke of why he did not believe that virtual education was the “safe way to go.” He said there is a cost that he expects will play out in the future. “There is a cost for coming to school and a cost for staying home.”

Several other members of the board thanked teachers and specifically Joan Hite, who spent the first week of school serving as temporary principal at Clarksville Elementary School as well as performing her other duties as head of curriculum for the school division.

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