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Online-only school on the table as virus spreads / August 03, 2020
The Halifax County School Board wwas warned at a work session Thursday that rising coronavirus infection rates in the community could jeopardize plans to offer face-to-face classroom instruction in the new school year.

Trustees held a difficult, sometimes contentious meeting to discuss protocols and potential pitfalls with the plan to return most students to school on a hybrid classroom-and-home model. Special education and students in grades K-2 will be able to return to the classroom four days a week under the plan developed by school leadership teams and administrators.

Older students would attend in-person school two days a week and learn online the other three days. All families have the option of keeping their students at home for full-time online education.

The challenges of sending students and staff back to school — with problems that range from sick students showing up for class to teachers who will quit rather than return to their classrooms — left School Board chair Todd Moser sounding a note of despair.

“It weighs heavy on my heart that we could potentially put students and family in harm’s way,” said Moser. “We do not have medical backgrounds. May God bless us all.”

While school officials have talked generally about instituting a hybrid model for the school year — with most students opting for a mix of in-person and online learning — Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg emphasized that no decisions have been made, although that will soon change with schools set to start back up Sept. 8.

“I do think we’re closer to being ready to execute [a mix of] going to school completely remotely [and] a hydrid model” of in-class and at-home instruction, Lineburg said. “And then we’ll know if we can get back to where we used to be.”

However, Lineburg also raised the possibility that Halifax County Public Schools could open the school year with full-time online education for all students, depending on the progression of the coronavirus in the county. A nine-week increment to start the school year would be “really sound,” he said.

Citing other nearby school divisions that have chosen between hybrid and full online learning platforms for the fall semester, Lineburg noted that only Mecklenburg County has said it will send students back to school four days a week — what he called the “high risk” option.

“We have purposely not said, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” said Lineburg, referring to HCPS’s planning for the resumption of school. “We have watched over the course of the summer, school division after school division change [their] plans, one after another, while we have refused to say this is what we’re going to do because we wanted to watch to see what everybody else is doing.”

The work session featured presentations by two medical professionals, Nurse Manager Tina Slabach and local pediatrician Dr. Nonna Ebalo, who shed light on what the schools can and cannot do to limit the spread of the virus, and the risk that HCPS could wind up with an outbreak on its hands if and when in-person classes resume.

Children under the age of 10 are at low risk of hospitalization, “but adult to adult [including 11 years old and older] contact is more likely to risk exposure of the virus to one another,” said Ebalo, adding “We have to look at the numbers of cases that are rising up week to week in our community.”

“We have been on an upward trend the past two weeks,” said Ebalo.

Virginia is among 33 states with a positive COVID-19 testing rate above 5 percent. Virginia’s seven-day average is 6.2 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. The World Health Organization has advised governments to pause reopening their economies until positive test rates — that is, the ratio between the number of tests and confirmed positives — can be pushed below 5 percent for 14 consecutive days.

The positivity rate in Halifax County on Thursday was 5.9 percent, according to Lineburg. On July 21, it was 8.9 percent, with the numbers fluctuating daily. Data for the Southside Health District, which includes Halifax, show the seven-day positivity rate steadily climbing in July.

“The level of community transmission is the hardest bullet” in CDC and state agency guidance for determining when it’s safe to reopen schools, said Lineburg.

Ebalo warned that the situation in the fall will be even worse than it is now once flu season arrives: “It will be a nightmare because the symptoms for both are similar,” she said.

School officials have been preparing for the inevitability of students showing up at school or at bus stops with a fever, or developing symptoms of disease once they arrive at school.

Slabach explained to trustees that while schools have guidelines in place to manage interactions with sick students, the division cannot mandate that students undergo testing for COVID-19.

If a student has a fever, the current policy recommends that families get in touch right away with their doctor. Any student should be free of a fever for 24 hours before returning to school.

“We cannot force anyone to seek medical treatment or get tested,” said Slabach.

Isolation rooms will be set up at each of the county’s schools for students who do not feel well or show a fever once they get to class. Each isolation room will be staffed with a nurse to conduct health assessments and an additional staff member to assist with supervision. Staff members will be issued face shields as personal protective equipment.

School officials admitted it will be difficult to calm public fears if there’s a virus outbreak at a school. “We know announcing a sick student or staff member is going to increase fear and anxiety for everyone,” said Lineburg.

Scott Worner, interim director of secondary instruction, said sending students with virus symptoms to a school isolation room may cause “panic and exasperation because students with a cold, flu, chicken pox, strep, and so on will all be together.”

Ebalo stressed that parents have a key role to play in determining whether in-person classes can go forward successfully this fall. “The parents have a big part in mitigating the spread of COVIS,” she said. “Don’t wait until the child is at school, at the [front] door or at the bus stop to find out if the child has a fever.”

She suggested that the spread of the virus over the next two to three weeks will determine whether schools can reopen safely.

Reinforcing that message was Lineburg, who emphasized that “communication [with families] is part of the difficult areas that we face here.” He added, “As much as we try to do our best with these policies and procedures in the school, we cannot isolate the school from the community.”

“We need everyone to help at home and at school, to keep everyone safe,” he said.

One challenge discussed at length at Thursday’s work session, held at Halifax County Middle School, is students who show up sick at their bus stops. The Central Office will soon be releasing a video demonstrating procedures for families of school bus riders to follow. The fleet’s 66-passenger buses will be limited to carrying 21 students at a time, with siblings allowed to sit together but all others required to physically distance. All riders will be required to wear a face mask.

Isolation seats will be designated on the bus for any student showing up a bus stop with a temperature of 100.4 or above. Once students showing a fever arrive at school, they will be taken to an isolation room to be picked up for the ride home. All parents are encouraged to be at the bus stop in case the student is running a fever.

The quarantine space on the bus “is the scariest thing I’ve heard so far,” said ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd, who raised the possibility of buses being forced to sit idle until a parent shows up to take the sickened student back home.

Bus stop policy states that a parent must be present when a student boards the bus, and HCPS reserves the option to call social services if needed. “This is all part of the challenge,” said Lineburg.

“If you do not feel well, do not come to school,” he said.

In recent days, the number of parents who have expressed the desire to keep their students at home for full-time online education has risen, Lineburg noted. While the household survey is “not final,” the superintendent urged parents and caregivers to make their choices known, because it will be “tough to change” plans for the school year once it begins.

Director of Elementary Education Lisa Long noted that hard data for in-school attendance has been critical in working out social distancing arrangements for individual classrooms. “We could move forward to measure how many students we could fit in each classroom,” she said.

After previously expressing the hope that a four-day school week could be offered for all students in kindergarten through third grade, Long told trustees on Thursday that the current plan calls for four-day school for students up to second grade. Special education students also would attend four-day classes at the middle school.

Lloyd asked if it “wouldn’t be easier for pre-K students to catch up and let the third graders attend school” four days a week. Lineburg replied that kindergarten pupils “are the most at-risk in our division and need more help to become emerging readers along with the socialization gained in school.”

For students attending school two days a week under a 4x4 block schedule, core classes will last 75 minutes and arts and electives will be 65 minutes each. High school students will have a 4x4 block schedule with cohort teams and classes situated closer together to lighten foot traffic in the hallways.

Long also discussed the creation of a Halifax Virtual Academy for students who opt for full-time online school at home. The only decision that trustees made Thursday was to hold another work session to go over details of the proposed virtual academy.

The meeting at the HCMS cafeteria got off to a somber note as participants were required to pass through a device resembling a metal detector — only this device reads the person’s temperature. Anyone who has a fever above 100.4 degrees will not be allowed to move through the school. Visitors will be allowed in only with an appointment.

Another issue raised at the work session is the number of teachers and school employees who have filed for a leave of absence, or found new employment rather than risk returning to school. The needs of teachers who are uncomfortable returning to the school due to being at high risk for COVID-19 or having a high-risk family member at home will be addressed individually, said Lineburg.

The meeting got off to a fractious start when Vice Chair Sandra Garner-Coleman and ED-8 trustee Walter Potts criticized fellow trustee Keith McDowell for showing up without a face mask.

“We’ve got to stop playing with this thing,” said Garner-Coleman of McDowell’s decision go mask-less at the meeting. “This thing is not playing, and I don’t know why people are trying to make this into a political issue, but lives are at stake.

“It not only offends me, it jeopardizes my life. And my husband’s life at home because he has underlying health conditions,” she said.

McDowell explained that he does not wear a mask for health reasons of his own, drawing a sharp retort from Garner-Coleman: “Stay at home if you have a medical condition.”

She and Potts left the cafeteria to participate in the meeting via Zoom call in another part of the middle school. Also participating via Zoom were trustees Jay Camp and Freddie Edmonds, along with Slabach and other administrative staff.

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how do you approach the digital divide? How to children have equal footing to learn when there is limited broadband options / infrasructure to supply children with internet? Or families that can not afford laptops for all thier children. The counties should have been investing in or pushing for broadband options for all. Satelite is not a viable option data caps and unreliable as well as unaffordable. It does not even give the parents equal footing to obtain potential work from home employment.

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