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Pandemic ed: Halifax schools eye profound change with new year

SoVaNow.com / May 11, 2020
Barring a massive turnaround of fortune with the COVID-19 pandemic, Halifax County Public Schools will look vastly different when the new school year starts — with a complex juggling act in place to promote the physical distancing of hundreds of people moving through school buildings each day.

“This is something that’s never been done in American public education history,” said Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg. “It’s going to be exciting, but there will be lots of trials and tribulations that go into it.

“We know we’re going to have school. We know we’ve got to have multiple instructional platforms. We know things are going to be very different next year.”

School administrators and principals have been discussing a raft of changes that, if and when implemented, will affect every aspect of school life — from the academic curriculum to bus transportation to no more meals being served in school cafeterias. While plans for HCPS remain tentative, “significant time and thought” has gone into how to protect the well-being of students and staff at each of the county’s schools, said Lineburg.

“I think we’re further along in our thinking than a lot of people [at school divisions] in the state.”

A guiding principle that will shape almost every part of the pandemic school day is “10-to-one” — the ratio of students in a classroom per teacher. Because the school division isn’t able to hire more teachers to lower class sizes, the plan instead will be to use more classrooms — with students broken up into groups receiving instruction at the same time, but in different rooms.

Some students would be stationed inside the classroom with a lead teacher, while others would take part via videoconferencing in a class elsewhere in the building. The idea, said Lineburg, is to allow greater social distancing to lower the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

Low-population schools, such as some of the county’s elementariy schools, might be able to avoid such drastic changes. But larger schools, especially the high school, middle school and South Boston Elementary, will have to adapt to a new reality.

“If you can figure out the logistics there, at the three biggest schools, you can figure out the rest,” said Lineburg.

Online instruction — whether inside the building, or at home for students whose parents choose to keep them out of school — is a major part of the multi-platform model that Lineburg envisions for the coming year. “I don’t think it’s the best way to learn,” he said of online education. “But we have to have school of some kind of way, under some system.”

In the example of classes that would be broken into two or more classrooms, a second teacher would be assigned to assist with instruction, helping students absorb the subject matter that a lead teacher would deliver over their computer screens.

Lineburg pushed back at the description of this second teacher as a classroom monitor — “they have expertise, they know how to teach school and teach school well” — but he acknowledged that faculty members would be called upon to help conduct classes outside of their specific subject areas.

“You could have phys ed teachers leading the other 10 students” in classes such as math, English, social studies and other core subjects if students are divided into separate classrooms.

The assistant teachers will be drawn from classes that are unlikely to be offered next school year — such as physical education and the arts, said Lineburg.

For students at home — “some families may be reluctant to send their kids to school,” said Linenburg — the challenge will be two-fold: delivering online lessons to areas that have poor Internet access, and working with parents and caregivers so they can assist students with their schoolwork.

“If we’re going to deliver distance learning, we’ll have to have some professional development for parents,” Lineburg said. That would mean teaching parents how to use online tools such as Google Classroom. “We’ve got to show them how to get materials, how they can help us along the way,” said the superintendent.

“It’s going to be incredibly challenging, incredibly difficult, and we’re going to have to work our way through it.”

To overcome problems of internet access, the school division could set up “hot spots” at out-of-the-way facilities where students and families could drive to access lessons and upload homework assignments and tests.

The challenges created by the pandemic extend to how the school day itself would be re-shaped. Electives such as band and arts classes are likely to suffer, with teachers in those subject areas assigned to help other teachers. Lineburg expressed doubt that P.E. will be taught in the fall. Sports are also vulnerable to being canceled.

Lineburg said administrators and teachers are focusing on how to preserve aspects of the school experience where online learning makes for a poor substitute for face-to-face contact. He mentioned three areas: teaching of the youngest pupils, from kindergarten through second grade, special education, and career and technical coursework.

With special education students, “they need support beyond what’s in their house most of the time. They need a hands-on approach,” Lineburg said. By the same token, hands-on learning is an essential part of teaching career skills such as auto mechanics, building trades and culinary arts.

As for the youngest students in grades K-2, “socialization is such an important part of their education,” Lineburg said.

At the high school, the traditional four-by-four block schedule is likely to see significant change — with fewer electives offered, shorter classes, and classes taught on alternate days of the week. But the biggest change could be the rotation of students into the building on separate daytime schedules, with some reporting for morning classes, others in the afternoon.

If the pandemic continues to make large groupings impossible, “you won’t be looking at 1,500 kids at the high school at the same time,” said Lineburg. “We’ll bring in 400 or 500 kids at a time.” That would further mean extending the school day, perhaps as late as dinnertime for some students.

“I don’t think the traditional 8:30 to 3:30 platform can be viable under current circumstances,” Lineburg added.

The demands on staff — teachers, administrators, bus drivers — will be enormous, which is why county school officials already are talking with the Virginia Department of Education about easing up on clock requirements for instructional hours and class days.

“It’s hard to imagine every teacher can do face-to-face and online [teaching] and planning …. If you’re 10-to-one and you’re rotating kids in and out of class … it’s hard to be able to do that,” said Lineburg.

He said state officials have been receptive to the idea of splitting the school day into different shifts, and VDOE is pondering changes to its requirements for teachers and other staff to make their schedules bearable under such a schedule. “It’s hard to do all that with the current rules,” said Lineburg.

Likewise, the school bus transportation system would have to undergo unprecedented change to make such a system work. “I think the bus routes will be staggered through the school day. Maybe you bring in 40 students at a time on four different buses. You probably won’t have [dozens of] buses in front of the high school at once,” said Lineburg.

Along with running more routes, bus drivers would have to take additional steps of wiping down vehicles with virus-killing disinfectants. “Even the health aspect of it — do you do temperature checks?” asked Lineburg. “We haven’t had any guidance on that at all.”

One change that is almost certain to occur when school resumes in late summer is no more meals in school cafeterias. In all likelihood, students will eat breakfast and lunch in smaller settings, perhaps by having their meals delivered to classrooms.

Other steps — from shelving the current school calendar to moving to year-round school — are on the table as the school division develops a plan for pandemic-era public education.

Lineburg stressed that some of the changes under consideration could produce benefits over time.

With the greater emphasis on online education, Halifax County Public Schools and the state Department of Education have an opportunity to make distance learning more robust. “It could be a chance to get more home-schooled students back in the fold,” he said. “You hope you can get them back because there would be well-developed choices for them.

“There have always been multiple platform options that you’ve never had to use before. [This] is going to change the way we do education.”

Lineburg said the plans for the school year “are just conceptual right now” but added, “We started on this conceptual thinking a long time ago.” The odds of having a normal school year, he added, are long.

“I think every school division will have to create a unique, multiple platform classroom environment. Everyone will have to figure out a way to deliver instruction that’s effective.”










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Comments

Sadly, very few of these ideas have been discussed with the faculty within the division. This lack of communication is why so many teachers defect to other divisions. Many other divisions value their employees and know that they are highly educated individuals and look to them for guidance and opinions. Halifax schools do not have this mentality. Many of us are reading this article and hearing of these ideas and plans for the first time. Many of us have also noted the additional responsibilities that are being mentioned and know that we will not be compensated for any of it. We work hard for our students, but get treated like insignificant worker ants. There is already talk about a reduced budget next year cutting into proposed raises, which will be taken away and then additional duties and then longer work days will be the norm. Thank you HCPS. My new username is now Cometpride_NOT.

Comments

Totally absurd. I honestly feel sorry for the children, teachers and parents with this crap being implemented. I hate the fact that my six grandchildren will have to go through this system! There are some really good teachers in our county that are way underpaid as it is and now this will just be asking them to leave the system! Pitiful

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This is the dumbest thing y’all ever could’ve came up with. y’all so quick to get back in school with this stuff going around, THINK before putting up a ridiculous article.

Comments

All of these ideas are completely stupid. Stupid isn’t a word that a highly educated professional like myself would typically use however I had to dumb down my opinion because clearly the ideas represented were NOT those of a highly educated individual. Removing the arts and having those teachers babysit is nonsensical. It’s the first step to removing all arts because for some reason the people in charge of running schools and making decisions have decided that those classes and groups are the first to go if ever any issue at all should arise. Most likely it is because these same individuals lack the mental capacity, dedication, patience, skill, and drive it takes to be successful at the arts. Just because you do not see the value in the arts or appreciate them, or participate in them doesn’t mean you should deprive our community of the opportunity to experience the beauty our kids are capable of creating just because there’s nothing beautiful left in your heart. Do better.

Comments

I dont mean no harm but the superintendent needs to be gone! Who has ever in their wildest dreams would propose something like this. The state is already talking about no money for this and that and now this? Plus having teachers run to dinner time. You better dig deep into pockets for that money you all been hiding here and there. You are going to need it.The superintendent seems to have no respect for his staff and teachers by not first discussing this with his staff. Halifax County residents you need to get a hold of this real quick.

Comments

So what is the plan for those students who need more than 6 classes to graduate? If they're making decisions, then they need to give all the information. Sadly, I contacted my daughter's counselor, because she needs 8 classes, and the counselor did jot have any helpful information. In fact, she said that they were shocked by the information they read in the paper. It's sad that the people in charge of our children's education are informationless and embarrassing that the school leaders would keep the employees in the dark. As a parent, I'm tired of my childs teachers and counselors answers always being "I don't know." My husband and I are so thankful that she'll be graduating next year, hopefully the school won't screw it up, and we'll be done with this cartoon division.

Comments

I think the community is lucky to have the leadership of Dr. Lineburg now more than ever. They have definitely thought about this more than any other school districts. Not everyone is going to be happy about the changes that must be put in place this fall and probably next spring too. All options and ideas must be on the table at this point. It is up to the faculty and administration to help them determine what can and can't be done. Smaller class sizes are a must, not eating together in the cafeteria. All of these are good ideas to keep the children safe from this deadly virus. You have to have an open mind to different options. Don't just say no to everything. Reducing the number of kids on a bus at one time, spreading them out. You will be hearing more of this from other school districts and the state soon. Kuddos to Dr. Lineburg and his team!

Comments

"we have to make sacrifices somewhere... Let's start with the unimportant classes..." - the person who gets paid to produce test scores.

Thanks a pile, Dr. Lineburg. This is revealing of your educational philosophy. Which skill would you say you use more in your current job as a citizen and head of school, creating something of beauty with peers who are different from you, or learning quadratic formula and sentence diagramming? When's the last time you needed to know about mitochondria to make decisions about your schools? When's the last time you had to find an equal balance of two important principles? Where do you think our students learn those skills better?

Comments

Hi, I didn't go through six years of college and two degrees to be a classroom monitor. I'm an art teacher - and believe me, kids NEED the arts in their lives. Now more than ever. I understand the need to change the way we approach school right now, but arts teachers are just as capable of doing distance learning. There's no excuse for cutting our programs, and ESPECIALLY for letting us find out about it through a news article instead of telling us up front!

Comments

It seems like the county school leaders have put a lot of thought into school for next year. I know it will be not like we want it, but we need to work together for the best of all students.

Comments

When you talk about making changes in the lives of students, parents, and teachers without first consulting those educators, you are asking for trouble. An apology to the very people you are asking to change their lives would be appropriate. When you use terms like “exciting” to describe the worst case scenario it is disgusting. Your job is not changing and yes it is a difficult one to have, but respect the people who actually teach these young minds in our community. Keeping people in the dark and in fear is not a good example of leadership.

Comments

I predict a huge increase in home schooling for next year.


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