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Halifax parents press case for full-time school

SoVaNow.com / July 02, 2020

Dozens of parents of Halifax County students plan to approach the Halifax County School Board at the July 13 meeting of trustees to plead for changes in the current proposal to divide the school year into in-person classroom days and online home instruction.

“I don’t think it’s going to work and I don’t think it’s fair for our children. I don’t think it’s a fair way to treat our teachers. Our students need structure, they need stability, and they need to be back in school,” said Beth Farmer of Alton, the mother of two students entering the high school and middle school later this summer.

Farmer and Stephanie Baylous Culley, who also has students in the county system, have launched a social media page, Stand Up For Our Children, that urges the School Board to shelve plans for a dramatically modified school schedule with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last time I looked, there were well over 40 people saying they would come to the School Board meeting,” said Farmer of the group’s Facebook page

In June, Central Office administrators outlined two options to offer parents for the upcoming school year, both of which rely heavily on remote learning. Parents and caregivers can opt to keep their students at home, for full-time virtual learning, or send students to school two days a week, with two days of instructional time spent at home.

Under the proposal, one group of students would attend classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a second group would be in the school building on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays would be set aside for teacher planning and professional development.

Farmer, who said she has discussed the plan at length with Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg, praised Lineburg’s openness to parental input and said she recognizes that all possible options have their drawbacks. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. I wouldn’t want his job,” she said.

But Farmer argued that holding kids out of school, even to protect their safety, comes at a cost that likely is worse than the coronavirus would inflict on students.

Children are suffering educationally, physically and emotionally from being stuck at home, she said, citing her daughter as an example. An honors student at the middle school, she is frustrated and upset at the thought of being unable to be inside the classroom, face-to-face with her teachers, tackling challenging subject matter once she enters high school.

“Your honors kids are working really hard to achieve their goals,” Farmer said. “They’re going to be hurt by this.”

In neighboring Mecklenburg County, a similar parents group has pushed school officials to ditch the idea of having students attend school on a home-and-classroom schedule — although unlike Halifax, Mecklenburg proposed in-person instruction on alternating weeks, not alternating days.

The campaign got a boost Tuesday when Mecklenburg’s school superintendent, Paul Nichols, said he would seek waivers from the Virginia Department of Education to allow students to attend school five a days a week.

In response to the concerns of Halifax parents, Lineburg said Wednesday that he agrees with many of their concerns about the downsides of keeping students out of school, an idea that has been necessitated by social distancing and lowering population levels inside school buildings.

“Her points are valid,” said Lineburg of the case put forward by Farmer and like-minded parents. Socialization and face-to-face learning are crucial parts of the educational experience, he said, beyond the myriad other services that schools provide to children and families. While educators have placed special emphasis on having full-time school for the youngest pupils up to second grade and for special education learners, “socialization works for high school students too,” Lineburg said.

“Trying to find the right balance is a challenge.”

Most neighboring school divisions are leaning toward an A/B daily schedule for the fall semester, with in-person classes on alternating days of the week, said Lineburg, who declined comment on Mecklenburg’s plans for full-time school as soon as Aug. 10. Halifax is pushing back to the start of its school year till after Labor Day.

In June, the Virginia Department of Education issued a school reopening plan, “Recover, Redesign, Restart,” that lays out guidelines for a phased reopening of public schools, with extensive safety precautions put in place to ward off virus outbreaks.

Since issuing the plan, which runs more than 130 pages, Virginia education officials have said final decisions on how to reopen schools will be in hands of local school boards. However, in Mecklenburg, Nichols said he will seek waivers from VDOE for full-time school.

Lineburg said he has “read every single word” of the VDOE restart plan, as well as guidance by the Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control for safely reopening schools, and he is watching the trendlines for the disease’s spread in Halifax and surrounding areas.

“Obviously, we want kids back in school full-time,” said Lineburg. But, “I think folks in our division would be disappointed if we didn’t comply with [the health guidance] …. I’m not a medical doctor or anything else, but when I read the document and it’s cross-referenced to the Department of Health and the CDC, I think that’s the document you go by.

“I’ve been critical of the Standards of Accreditation and the Standards of Learning for years, but when I get out of my lane, I go by what I read.”

Halifax County Public Schools sent out a survey on Tuesday to parents and caregivers, asking them to state a preference between keeping their students at home with a virtual curriculum, or having students attend school in person at least part of the week.

Lineburg said it was too early to draw conclusions from the responses received so far by HCPS, but “our preliminary data shows that more folks than not want to have face-to-face instruction for their children, which is exactly what we thought would happen.

“We’re beginning to see some trends,” he said. “I think by July 6 we’ll have a pretty good indication of where families are.”

According to Farmer and others, school trustees should expect a robust turnout at the next School Board meeting from parents who are dissatisfied with the idea of having their kids out of school.

Farmer, who works at Cedar Grove Retrievers, the family’s business, said she would be open to the idea of homeschooling her children if not for the poor internet service to their home in the Alton countryside.

“I love having my children home. But I can’t homeschool here. Our internet is horrible.

“When they have their Chromebooks here, they couldn’t even do their homework,” she said of her children. “I would have to get them to school extra early so they could get their homework done there.”

She advocates for full-time, in-person schooling even though her daughter has a compromised immune system. This past school year, she came down with a mysterious breathing condition that kept her home for 18 days in February. Doctors ruled out the standard ailments “and finally said she had respiratory disease,” said Farmer.

She wonders, in retrospect, if her child didn’t contract an early case of the coronavirus. “I really do” think she had COVID-19, “because she’s never been that sick, ever,” said Farmer.

Yet after going through that bleak experience, Farmer said she wouldn’t hesitate to send both her children back to school. “I would send my kids four days a week and I would sign a waiver releasing the county of responsibility if my kids got sick,” she said.

Many other parents share the sentiment, Farmer added. “They are very concerned about their kids failing behind.

“I think [Lineburg] truly cares and he wants what is best for the kids and he’s looking at every angle. But as parents … we want our kids to have normal lives.”



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