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With distance learning first 9 weeks, many adjustments / August 13, 2020
Key takeaways from the Halifax County School Board’s decision to start school Sept. 8 with students staying at home:

» While trustees choose not to go with the proposed school hybrid plan — with most students attending class two days a week, on alternating A/B daily schedules — they agreed to reassess the situation in four weeks, with the possibility of returning students to school after the first nine-week grading period. The status of the coronavirus pandemic in Halifax County will weigh on their decision. ”The region is trending up and we are approaching substantial community spread,” said nurse manager Tina Slabach.

» Trustees agreed first priority is to bring back students in grades K-2 and special education learners, two groups that are most in need of face-to-face classroom instruction. The hybrid instructional plan crafted by administrators, principals and teachers sought a four-day school week for these students. “We’ll never back away” from the belief that face-to-face instruction is the best way to teach, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg.

» Lineburg said it’s likely the School Board will be faced with the need to make adjustments throughout the year — toggling between remote, hybrid and full-time instructional options. If students and staff are able to safely return to school buildings, a hybrid schedule of home-and-classroom model would be the logical next step. Full-time school may be possible once a vaccine is developed for COVID-19.

» It’s “distance learning,” not virtual learning. Jeanie Hawks, director of instructional technology, emphasized the distinction in her presentation Monday night. With virtual learning, students can take an active part in classroom activities online while at home — through videoconferencing software such as Zoom and other platforms. Halifax County’s internet capabilities don’t allow for that, Hawks said. “We recognize that not every student has access to internet equitably across the county,” she said.

In most cases, students will instead download materials and lessons and upload their completed homework and other classroom assignments after completing their work at home. For students living in areas with limited or no broadband internet, Hawks said a full-bore effort is under way to fill the gaps.

The school division is working to boost the wireless capabilities at all county school campus so students and families can drive up, download the day’s schoolwork, and send it back once it’s done. Hawks also said the school division is working on a comprehensive map of WiFi hotspots in the county, public and private, and will reach out to see if these networks can be made available to students.

It’s possible “maybe even neighbors” can be approached about sharing their internet service with students, Hawks said.

» Parents and providers will receive guidance from the schools on the use of Canvas, the educational platform that students tap into with their Chromebooks. A low-tech way of running materials out to rural homes is to rely on bus drivers to do the task. Church groups could do the same with their church vans. “These are some of the things we’ve talked about,” said Hawks.

» With school buildings empty, some employees will inevitably be furloughed. Assistant Superintendent Valdivia Hall explained that furloughed employees are eligible for unemployment benefits, and their future benefits and compensation will not be affected if they are idled. However, furloughed employees would be required to keep up their standard contributions to the school health insurance plan.

“Regardless of which model” the school division goes with — distance and hybrid — “we are going to have challenges,” said Hall. For employees whose jobs “are dependent on students being in the building, they will be subject to furloughs.”

“When we open for face-to-face instruction, they will be welcomed back like nothing happened,” Hall added.

» School bus and car drivers and classroom paraprofessionals are most likely to be furloughed.

» With the difficulty of holding school under pandemic conditions, trustees agreed to adopt a revised grading scale, previously outlined by director of elementary education Lisa Long, that offers grades for high school and middle school students on a 10-point scale, and an S-NI-U scale for elementary students — Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, and Unsatisfactory.

» Sharp divisions emerged on the School Board on the subject of mask wearing — not by students, but by fellow trustees. Sandra Garner-Coleman and Walter Potts excused themselves from the middle school cafeteria to take part in the meeting from elsewhere in the building via Zoom. Before leaving, however, they sharply criticized ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell, who has refused to wear masks to meetings, citing an unspecified health condition that he says keeps him from doing so.

The dispute drew angry reactions from Garner-Coleman and Potts. Garner-Coleman told McDowell that if he has a health condition that keeps him from wearing a mask, he should stay home and take part in meetings by Zoom that way, rather than showing up mask-less and compelling her to leave the room. The board vice-chair said she had her own concerns with a husband at home with compromised health.

“He should go to Zoom,” said Garner-Coleman of McDowell before she stepped out of the cafeteria.

McDowell protested the comments of Potts and Garner-Coleman, saying he felt he was being bullied on the matter, but his complaint was cut short by Board Chairman Todd Moser, who urged members to air their differences in executive session.

One of the citizen speakers at the meeting, local NAACP representative Detra Carr, urged school trustees to set a positive example by wearing masks.

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