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Mecklenburg trustees pause rules on backpacks, drinks / August 23, 2017

The Mecklenburg County School Board agreed to revisit a ban on students carrying backpacks and drink containers with them throughout the school day, one of many topics to come up during Monday’s regular monthly meeting of the trustees.

Without objection, trustees approved a 60-day moratorium on a new policy that had gone into effect for backpacks and containers.

During the moratorium period, students will no longer need to stow backpacks, string bags or large purses in their lockers while at school. During that same 60-day period, they can carry clear containers of water, which they can use to maintain proper hydration.

Trustee Dale Sturdifen asked to pause the policy after pointing out that the performance of too many of the student-athletes is being hindered. “The kids are cramping because they are not allowed to hydrate during the day.”

In a similar vein, Gavin Honeycutt said he’s received a number of complaints from parents of sixth graders who often eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. According to Honeycutt, these children don’t return home until after 4:30 p.m. and have been without food for at least six hours.

“If they’re hungry or thirsty, they won’t pay attention [in class],” said Honeycutt. “This needs to be addressed.”

Sturdifen also questioned the policy that prohibits students from carrying bookbags with them during the day. He said the policy hinders kids who must carry their books and computers to class. He wondered why the policy was implemented.

Dora Garner said the policy came in response to the problem of crowded school hallways. When students are trying to maneuver through narrow hallways, their large purses or backpacks might hit or knock into another student and bring about a fight, she explained.

Sturdifen said the moratorium is a step forward, but Wanda Bailey expressed caution, suggesting the School Board seek feedback from principals and teachers to “see if they have legitimate concerns” before eliminating the backpack policy.

Glenn Edwards suggested the moratorium be implemented on a 60-day trial basis “to see how it works.” And Lindell Palmer added that the moratorium should apply to all middle and high school students.

The existing policy banning drink containers and bookbags still applies to elementary school students.

In other action;

» Trustees will look at how each school in the county interprets the state policy that requires eighth grade students to take at least 150 minutes of physical education per week. Students at Park View Middle School must take PE class for a full year, while students at Bluestone Middle School need only take PE for one semester. Honeycutt said this means “kids at Park View Middle School are missing out on opportunities to take electives.”

Trustee Rob Campbell wondered why the PE program was different at the two middle schools. Nichols replied, “Because principals have been given the opportunity to decide how they want to run their schools.”

Bailey sought to sum up the problem, explaining that eighth grade students at Park View Middle School are placed at a disadvantage with their counterparts at Bluestone, especially students who wish to take band. PVMS students are not able to take band in back-to-back semesters as the school’s curriculum is currently structured.

Nichols promised to investigate the issue and bring the matter back for further discussion, but Palmer asked him to move forward without further input since a “delay won’t allow for change in the student’s schedule this year.”

» Lions Clubs from South Hill, Chase City and Clarksville agreed to continuing working with county schools to provide vision screening for students at no cost to the school division.

Josh Hatchell, president of the South Hill Lions Club, said the screening performed by Lions uses a specialized camera that is not a substitute for going to the eye doctor. However, these screenings can detect astigmatisms, near- and far-sightedness, misalignment of pupils, lazy eye, and pupil size abnormality.

“If there is a problem,” Hatchell said, “we turn the information [screening results] over to the school nurse who makes a recommendation to the parent. We’re trying to catch vision problems before there is the need for surgery or significant intervention.”

According to Hatchell, each screening takes between 30 seconds and one minute, and they can process about 100 students an hour.

Since eye screening is mandated by the General Assembly, the fact that the Lions perform this service free of charge saves the school division more than $9,000 per year.

Hatchell said local Lions look forward to continuing their work with county schools on the effort.

» Transportation Director Bill Mayhew said he recently attended a highway safety meeting in which the discussion turned to the ongoing problem of drivers exceeding the speed limit on Route 58-1 in front of Park View High School.

Rob Campbell said one problem is that the highway signs at PVHS are supposed to have flashing yellow lights that turn on in the morning and at the end of the school day. If these lights are not working, Campbell said no enforcement action can be taken against speeders who zoom past the school.

Campbell, who is employed as a Virginia State Trooper, also said signage identifying the school zone and the hours during which drivers must reduce their speed from 55 mph to 35 mph are too small. He suggested Mayhew should ask VDOT for larger signs.

Honeycutt asked if there could be similar school zone signs at La Crosse Elementary, given the number of speeders that pass by the school. There have also been several accidents from drivers attempting to enter or exit the school parking lot. Mayhew said the school can be accessed from two different roads and the signs are only located on one road.

Campbell suggested that Mayhew should ask VDOT to conduct a traffic study of the area, which is a necessary first step to installing school zone signs along roadways.

» As part of his Superintendent’s Report, Nichols said Mecklenburg County schools will undergo several federal audits of their programs this year, and these must also updated in the division’s comprehensive plan.

Virginia law requires school divisions to create or update their strategic or comprehensive plans every five years. The last update occurred in 2014 when then-superintendent James Thornton rolled out his “Building on Strength: A Culture of Excellence” plan. Updates to that plan were approved in 2015.

Nichols said he was in the process of identifying committees to work on the new comprehensive plan. “It will take a lot of time and you’ll be hearing more about it as we go through the process.”

» Nichols then asked the trustees to consider returning the “in service” building back to the county as it is no long used by the school division. The in-service building is on Madison Street in downtown Boydton on the site of the old Boydton Elementary School.

» The student population in Mecklenburg has gone up, according to Nichols, and this is good news for the division since both state and federal dollars are tied to the average daily number of students that attend the school division. “La Crosse Elementary has over 400 students and Park View High School’s ninth and eleventh grade classes each have over 200 students,” Nichols said.

» He also gave trustees a heads-up about the need for one or more special meetings. He said the joint education committee expects to hear soon from consultants who are studying potential sites for the county’s new consolidated high school-middle school.

“The engineers have completed their study and will report their findings by Labor Day,” said Nichols. The joint education committee, comprised of supervisors and trustees, will meet with engineers in early September. That committee will make a recommendation from among four sites and come back to the School Board and Board of Supervisors for their final approvals.

Assuming both boards can agree on a site for the new school, Nichols said he anticipates having architectural drawings in hand by the end of spring or early summer 2018.

Bluestone athletic director Dan Powell is looking to expand opportunities for additional sports programs once the high schools and middle schools consolidate. He’s looking at programs such as tennis, field hockey, swimming, crew, boys volleyball, indoor track and lacrosse. For now, he would like to establish a fishing team.

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