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Mecklenburg trustees push off school opening to Sept. 8

SoVaNow.com / July 08, 2020
After announcing plans last week to have students returning to the classroom full-time, Meckleburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols on Tuesday asked the school board to push back the start of the 2020-21 school year to Sept. 8.

Trustees approved the calendar change by a 7-0 vote, with two members absent, Lindell Palmer and Rob Campbell. The revised calendar extends the school year to June 16, 2021.

Trustees also approved 7-0 a resolution calling for Gov. Ralph Northam to “rescind the ‘Phase Guidance for Virginia Schools;’ … grant local School Boards the authority to reopen schools in a manner that is practical, safe, healthy, effective, in step with the Centers for Disease Control school reopening guidance, and in consultation with their local Health Department, … and grant local School Boards the specific authority to create local transportation plans for transporting students to and from school in a manner that is practical, safe, healthy, and effective in consultation with their local Health Department, with no fewer than one student per seat on the school bus.”

Even though the Virginia Constitution makes it clear that school governance is a local issue, not a matter of state control, Nichols said the resolution was a necessary step to set forth the school board’s position on school operations, including the decision to resume in-person classroom learning.

Nichols said now that the School Board has adopted the resolution, he no longer needs to seek waivers from the Virginia Department of Education before moving forward with plans to allow students to return to the classroom full-time

Previously, the school year was set to begin Aug. 10 with an alternating weekly schedule that included both virtual and in-person learning for most students. After Northam relaxed a prior mandate by the Virginia Department of Education that would have prevented all students from attending classes together, Nichols acceded to requests from several trustees to return to in-person classroom instruction, full time.

“Make no mistake, we are doing this for the needs of the students not the parents,” Nichols said in response to those who he said have told him that schools are not an alternative to daycare and they should not reopen simply to fill that need. He cited health data from the Centers for Disease Control, Harvard Global Health Initiative and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, as evidence that the health risks to children returning to the classroom full-time is no greater than for those who attend school on an alternating schedule. These same experts claim it is less risky to return students to the classroom from a developmental standpoint, Nichols said.

Brent Richey also addressed those who questioned why the decision was made to allow students to return to the classroom. “The intention all along was to come back [to school] as close to normal as possible.” It was the constraints from the governor that prevented them from reopening, he said.

Nichols acknowledged that anxiety among parents has grown as the start of the new school year approaches and the threat of the coronavirus remains. As of Tuesday, Mecklenburg reported 249 cases of COVID-19, with 28 deaths, all but three of which are tied to Chase City Health and Rehab and Sentara MeadowView Terrace, long-term care facilities in Chase City and Clarksville.

Parents have expressed concerns that their child’s lack of access to reliable technology or their own inability to help their child with the lessons being taught, with no teacher to fall back on, could deepen academic achievement gaps between poor and wealthier students. Others worried about how to care for younger children on days when they would not be in school. Prior to green-lighting full-time school attendance, Mecklenburg had planned to alternate students on week-to-week schedules.

Nearly 40 percent of parents of school-aged children in the county have indicated their fear of their child bringing the virus into their home. These parents said they have no plan to return their students to an in-person classroom setting until the threat of the virus has passed.

Nichols said those parents who want to keep their children at home will still have access to the Mecklenburg County Schools through online learning programs being developed by Joan Hite, director of primary and secondary education, and a group of teachers.

Teachers will spend the weeks before the students return to school learning how to create and deliver effective online lessons for all students. At the same time, the school division ordered and received additional Chromebooks to ensure each student in grades three through 12 will have access to a laptop and portable hotspots for students who have no internet access.

Despite approving a resolution calling for the schools to reopen full-time, more than one board member expressed concerns for the teachers and other staff who may have compromised immune systems, or at higher risk for the virus for other reasons.

Ricky Allgood, Glenn Edwards and Gavin Honeycutt said they’d heard from teachers who were worried about whether there would be sufficient health protocols and enough personal protective gear to reopen safely and keep school staff safe from spread of the virus.

Allgood sought assurances that the school division had the power to send students home from school if they showed any signs or symptoms that could be associated with the coronavirus. He was told “yes” by Nichols, since all students must answer a daily questionnaire about their health conditions and parents will be put on notice that they should not send students to school who are sick.

These and many more issues must be addressed along with a mandate that remains from the Virginia Department of Education to ensure that all children, especially those in “gap groups” — those with disabilities, or who are economically or language challenged — receive equal education. Nichols said the scale of those challenges are immense. With the initial start of the school year less than a month away, Nichols said he saw the need to ask for more time to prepare.

Moving forward, Nichols said health and safety issues must guide every decision the schools make. The division is adopting protocols recommended by both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Issues being addressed include:

» The safest and best means for transporting students to school, if less than a dozen students are allowed on a school bus at one time. Do you assign seats to bus riders or require them to wear a cloth face coverings while on the bus and do you encourage students who have other ways to get to school to use those options?

» Can young students be allowed to use the playground in small groups?

» What is the best spacing of desks to help prevent the spread of the virus, and can or should the division mandate that everyone wear face masks except where not feasible for health or age-related reasons?

» Should there be classroom changes by teachers instead of students to help limit student interaction outside the classroom?

» Since temperature checks and COVID-19 testing of all students is not feasible, what protocols should the division establish to identify students with fever or other symptoms of illness?

» Does the school division have access to enough and the right kind of cleaning and disinfecting supplies to sanitize the classrooms and common areas every day?

In addition to having plans in place to keep students and school personnel safe, there are other factors that the school must address before students return to the classroom. One critical component being handled by Hite and her team is related to the virtual learning platform — how it will operate, and when and how teachers, students and parents will be trained on its use.

Some students may not have gained as much from distance learning since the schools were closed in March. Curriculum may need adjusting to allow those students to make up any lost progress while also learning new material.

There is also the need to balance core subjects with physical education and other learning experiences. The school division is developing a plan to do that safely and deciding which learning experiences can be done during the pandemic that will not put students or others in harm’s way.

Teachers and administrators involved with special education students noted that the impact of schools being closed may have been greater for these students. They may have difficulty transitioning back to school after missing instruction time as well as school-based services. Each child’s IEP or 504 Plan is being reviewed and accommodations made before the student returns to school.

These and many other issues must be ironed out and a plan submitted to the Virginia Department of Education before students can return to the classroom. For that reason, Nichols said the school division needs more time.



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