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Nichols revives plans for full-time school / July 01, 2020

Mecklenburg County students may be returning to the classroom full-time starting Aug. 10 now that Gov. Ralph Northam has relaxed a mandate for school divisions to strictly adhere to Virginia Department of Education guidelines that would prevent all students from attending classes together.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said Tuesday he plans to seek waivers from VDOE guidelines so county schools can fully reopen while following health and sanitization measures.

Nichols said the Central Office administration had developed a plan for reopening schools that he believed was consistent with guidelines issued by Northam and the state education department. That plan called for students to attend school on alternating weeks, with the rest of the fall semester spent at home learning online.

“At the time we understood those guidelines to be regulations and Mecklenburg County Public Schools was following them,” said Nichols at a special call meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board on Tuesday.

On June 10, VDOE issued detailed information on how schools should impose social distancing, cleaning, and other measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus when classes resume this fall.

It proposed a phased reopening that prompted most schools to begin classes remotely or include remote learning as part of their school schedule. The guidance also specified that all divisions must submit reopening plans to the state.

Mecklenburg’s school plan asked parents to choose between two options for their children’s education — total virtual learning or the hybrid program, with school conducted in-person for one week and online the next, while the other half of the student population would be on an opposite schedule.

The proposal drew objections from many parents, with some saying the plan forced them to choose between their job and their children’s education. Others worried about finding or affording the daycare that would be needed during those weeks the student was learning virtually. Still others, particularly those with children with special needs, expressed concerns about the impact this school schedule would have on their child’s learning.

When pressed by trustees to either push back against or ignore the state’s guidelines, Nichols said he and other superintendents questioned the authority of the governor to mandate school operations since K-12 education is a local issue under the Virginia Constitution. He also pointed to a remark he attributed to state school Superintendent James Lane, that the state had the power to shut down any school district that did not comply with the guidelines set forth in the Recover, Redesign and Restart Comprehensive Plan issued by the Department of Education.

Nichols and other superintendents around Virginia started reaching out to their legislators in the General Assembly, explaining the problems with the guidelines from both a fiscal and an educational standpoint.

During a press briefing on Friday, Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, outlined new guidance for the schools. In doing so, he acknowledged that the final decisions on how to reopen public schools in Virginia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be left up to local school boards.

“It has been represented the guidance is law to the localities. That is not the case,” Mercer said. “It is intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level, but it does not mandate any one particular approach. Guidance is not law. This is up to your local school boards to decide how they’re going to open responsibly,” he said.

The change in position by the state comes on the heels of testimony National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci delivered to members of Congress in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in which he shared his view that decisions about schools should be made locally. “It’s not one-size-fits-all. I think you have to look at it at the local level, the county level, the regional level, the city level, the state level,” Fauci said.

It also followed a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the reopening of schools. “The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” the group representing 67,000 pediatricians wrote. “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

“This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality,” the guidance continued. “Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.”

These remarks from the Academy of Pediatrics address three major issues Mecklenburg County had been grappling with as it prepared its plan to reopen schools — food insecurity, mental health concerns and learning loss and how to guard against them.

Nichols said the division must still meet certain safety standards and submit both a health risk mitigation plan and an education plan to the state Department of Education at least 15 days before the start of school.

“We feel like we have opportunities at this point to make changes [to their current plan]. As long as Virginia does not experience a surge in COVID-19 cases before the start of school, Nichols is relatively confident he can ask for waivers that would give parents the option of having students in school full time or learning virtually.

Nichols said, “The work done to prepare for virtual learning is not wasted because we know that at any point, we may have to revert to a virtual learning option. Even as we look to make the face-to-face option available there are still students who will want/need virtual learning and we have to be in a position to give them that option.”

Wanda Bailey responded by offering her full support to Nichols to pursue the option of full-time return to school. Brent Richey commended Nichols and the teaching staff for the work they’ve done to prepare for virtual learning since nearly 40 percent of the parents who responded to the Mecklenburg County Public School education survey said they would prefer their children remain at home until the potential for spreading of the virus is contained.

Ricky Allgood wondered if the school division was opening itself up for litigation by returning the classroom full-time. “The lawyers [for the Virginia School Board Association] said we have immunity except in cases of gross negligence,” replied Nichols.

Allgood then asked if the division chose to move forward with its hybrid plan, could it revert to in-person classes once the virus was contained. He was told by Nichols, “Yes, that was always the plan.”

Dora Garner shared the opinion of her son, a parent of school-aged children, saying he favored in-person learning as long as it can be done safely. She also suggested, if the school division stuck with its hybrid learning option, teachers should be assigned to teach either the virtual lessons or in-person classes, but not both. Forcing teachers to do both put too much strain on them, she said.

Glenn Edwards worried about the health of the teachers should students return to school full-time. “If you are going to have teachers teaching five classes at five times a day this could expose them to the virus.”

Nichols said he appreciated the parents who worked together to open the doors for communication and who did so in a way that recognized that a lot of the decision-making process appeared to be out of the hands of the local board. He said he would continue to meet with these parents to seek their input moving forward, particularly now that the school reopening plan might change and there is only six weeks left before school is set to begin.

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While I understand the need to take the opinions of all stakeholders into consideration, daycare challenges should not be the reason to apply for a variance that is in direct opposition of the plans outlined by the VDOE. Parents have had to make adjustments for daycare since March. This is not a new consideration for families.


I understand that parents are concerned about childcare. However, schools aren't babysitters! People should step up do what you have to do, it's called being a parent. What happens if we start back full-time and employees start to get sick? There aren't enough substitutes(teachers, bus drivers, food services, etc.) in Mecklenburg County for the potential disaster. We also risk the chance of being shut down again. So many states that opened up to quickly are now getting slammed with new cases. Furthermore, I think it's not fair that Central office and the school board are catering to parents without even asking staff our opinions! We have staff who are high risk with autoimmune diseases and taking care of family members who are also high risk. Do we not matter?


Please do not assume that parents consider the teachers as baby sitters. But understand that most of us do not have the skills that a teacher has in the classroom. Listen to what the pediatric doctors are saying. The schedule that parents were given was a SURVEY. Many parents did not fill it out. Many parents will not send children to school. Do you really think that students attending school one week and out the next week is going to control this virus. As far as the School Board listening to parents, isn't that part of their job? If you have not been heard then you should contact the School Board. If you are a teacher and feel you are at risk, then don't teach the fall semester.


I am working from home and will return to work when I am told to. If I don't I lose my job at a higher education facility. We are open for students following the guidlines set before us. As I understand from some teachers that they can't afford childcare,becsuse of low wages. If children, teachers,parents and grandparents and guardians can go to the beach, eat in a restaurant go in Walmart, why can't they go to school? These children have a rightto the BEST education they can get.


And let me tell you when they attend one of the 23 community colleges in VA they have been well educated in Mecklenburg county. They usually have no developmental courses to take. That says a lot for our teachers in our county. And like me, don't forget who pays your salary, our taxes. So my place of employment may have a 10 to 20 percent cut this fall because no students means no pay. Some kids are not going tobe able to do online classes. That means no educational values taught. So now we will have a generation of children who could get behind and never catch up. Is that a fair education for everyone. Yes yeachets bus drivers cafeteria workers, willbe exposed,but how many children have this virus?


What about our police force,EMT'S. health care facility workers, most went to work and did their job. Without these people ,where would we be? Are you concerned about how mamy parents are going going to choose home schooling and never send their kids back to school. Job cuts is what that means for teachers.


Thanks Mr. Nichols! Our Covid-19 numbers in Mecklenburg County are phenomenally low. Last week there were less than 60 cases and three deaths not related to two nursing home outbreaks in three and a half months. Certainly not enough to deprive our children of quality educations and seasons of their lives.


As a parent I prefer starting off with the hybrid plan. See how that goes and then go full blown after we see how reopening goes. At least with the alternating schedules if you did have an outbreak you wouldn’t have to shut everyone down. Please take a look and see that all the divisions around us are planning hybrid educational models. Everyone wants their children to be in school full time but I think it needs to be a staggered process.


I understand that there need to be options esp for parents that work full time but please do not take away options for those parents whose children have underlying health conditions and are very wary sending their kids back to school full time. I hope the hybrid choice still remains an option.


Please keep the 100% virtual learning option. Some children have family members that are at risk.


I think the two options should stay as is. And put on there more one more full time . At first it was told this was a suvery it is not . Also this week schools are calling parents giving just two options on the suvery we were told it was for a semester now it is only for 9 weeks my husband has a comprise immune systems and my son is scare to go back.


I don't believe daycare should be a deciding factor in this equation for an August school reopening. Adjustments have been done since March. I think it should be a staggered reopening as already stated by someone in a previous comment. My concern is, no matter which option the School Board decides on, how is social distancing going to be enforced to the students? How are they to get to and from school with social distancing? How can the teachers or staff enforce social distancing with boyfriends and girlfriends walking holding hands, hugging in the hallways, etc? That's potential of putting those that are high risk in danger at home.

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