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‘Toughest year that school divisions have ever had’ / November 18, 2020
Del. Tommy Wright asked the Mecklenburg County School Board to describe their year during a brief appearance at the School Board meeting Monday night in Boydton.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols expressed his concerns for students who are falling behind as they try to learn from home, and he singled out the ongoing problem of inadequate internet service in many parts of Mecklenburg County.

“It’s been the toughest year that any of the school divisions have ever had,” Nichols said. “A significant number of students [in Mecklenburg County Public Schools] are coming from high poverty homes and need to be in school.”

He told Wright that school divisions need the authority to tell parents that if they intend to keep their students at home learning virtually, they must provide the division with a plan that demonstrates how the students will keep up with their lessons “better than what we are seeing with some of our students.”

Nichols added that funding for K-12 education is also among his “biggest fears.” He said he’s aware some divisions are finding ways to give bonuses to their teachers and staff, but in Mecklenburg County “there are more teachers than available covid money.” So the division is looking at other ways to try and bless teachers. “It is tough but we are working on it.”

Wright offered no suggestions on ways to address these concerns, except to agree that virtual online learning is not as effective as in-person, face-to-face classroom instruction. Wright also voiced pessimism that rural internet service gaps would be solved any time soon, noting that there is no incentive for private businesses to bring internet service to rural areas since it is not profitable.

Wright said his personal view is to “do whatever it takes to get it done [broadband service to rural areas].”

In other business, Paige Lacks presented a proposed academic plan for the 2021-22 school year and asked trustees to review it before their meeting in December when they will be asked for their approval.

Nichols said in January, high school students will be required to come into school buildings in person to take their SOL tests. He said the Virginia Department of Education will not allow school divisions to test students virtually. “We are working on the bus routes,” Nichols said and promised that social distancing and the wearing of face masks would be enforced.

Nichols said he still has not seen grading reports from the end of the first nine weeks and is not in a position to discuss the impact virtual learning has had on student learning.

School Board chair Gavin Honeycutt asked if schools were in a position to offer transportation to students who want to use “internet cafés” at Bluestone and Park View high schools for online accessibility and additional instruction. At this time, transportation is not available.

Nichols said the Central Office is already beginning its budget planning for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. The highest priority is again teacher pay. This year, teachers did not receive a step increase. He said he would like this to be corrected through the FY 2022 budget.

Nichols said he also plans to start conversations with the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors about renovations and upgrades to the county’s three aging elementary school buildings at Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse. Nichols stressed that he would not be seeking funding for the renovations in the upcoming budget, but hopes to begin the planning process. Nichols also promised to seek input from school principals on their funding priorities for the new budget being developed.

Edward Vogel, the parent of a sophomore at Park View High School, said he felt his son was being discriminated against because he was not among the group of high school students attending school in person. Secondary students are attending school virtually unless they are a special education or English as a second language student.

He said his son was frustrated, lonely and often defensive.

Vogel acknowledged that the pandemic has “changed lives” but said students need to be back in the classroom with teachers who are “professionals who can bring out the best in students.” “Virtual education does not always work. This past nine weeks have not done well for my son,” who is often “frustrated, lonely and defensive.”

Vogel downplayed the impact of the virus on the community, saying that only three percent of the county’s population has been infected. He suggested he might be forced to relocate to an area that has reopened its school facilities if Mecklenburg continues with virtual learning.

Trustee Ricky Allgood asked the public to keep the family of Billy Driggs in their prayers. Driggs, a former school board member and member of the Mecklenburg County Industrial Development Authority, passed away on Sunday at the age of 85. Separately, Glenn Edwards thanked fellow board members for their prayers and concerns following the recent passing of his mother.

Wanda Bailey congratulated students “who have made lemonade out of lemons” after completing their first nine weeks of school during the pandemic. She praised them for becoming “self-starters” and “advocates” for themselves. “For those who are not doing well, keep at it, don’t check out check in. Do all you can to be an advocate for yourself. It’s part of growing up,” Bailey said.

Park View Middle School received its official acknowledgement as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Nichols said it was the only middle school in Virginia to be so honored. The school was awarded with a plaque, a banner and a flag.

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