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Opinion

Finding normal

SoVaNow.com / July 09, 2020


Way back in April, to summon the memory of a time long ago, members of the Halifax County School Board were talking about the pandemic-era future of Halifax County Public Schools at their monthly meeting when Board Chair Todd Moser and ED-8 trustee Walter Potts offered almost diametrically opposite takes. In the opinion of Moser, we could expect a return to normalcy by June 10. Potts, meantime, voiced his bleak view that we were just getting started with COVID-19 in Halifax County.

Here we are in July, and it’s no contest as to which guess turned out to be correct. But don’t think too poorly or highly of anyone’s predictive powers. All you really need to know about getting the coronavirus right is that while you can always hope for the best, you should plan for the worst.

The optimism that Moser expressed has been hard to shake. (I’ve been guilty of the same error on plenty of occasions.) Wishful thinking about a return to normal continues to cloud our response to a deadly pandemic that is gaining fresh momentum in the U.S., with the number of new virus cases barreling toward the 100,000 per-day mark — a disaster set in motion by dysfunctional national leadership and the ongoing, and mind boggling, refusal of way too many people to take this health crisis seriously.

It’s against this dreary backdrop that I sincerely hope county residents will greet the challenges of launching a new school year with forbearance and patience. An utter catastrophe has been tossed in the laps of our local educators and their peers around the country. Halifax County Public Schools, like all other school districts, is being asked to walk the line between ensuring the safety of students and staff and figuring out how to get kids back to school — knowing that the alternatives for face-to-face classroom learning, notably online instruction, are less than optimal and possibly a complete waste of time and effort. It’s like asking someone with no advance training to walk the high wire that was once strung between the Twin Towers, in the middle of a hurricane.

In early May, I put in a call to Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg to ask about plans for resuming school for the 2020-21 fall semester. (This was more than a month after Virginia had canceled what was left of the 2019-20 school year.) Out of that conversation resulted an article that we posted to our website, SoVaNow.com, that blew the doors off anything we’ve previously published online. In a single day, we registered 35,228 page views, and reader traffic remained elevated throughout the month. (Prior to the pandemic, the story that flew fastest in the viral jetstream was our coverage of attempted sabotage at the Microsoft cloud computing center in Boydton in February 2017. The Halifax school year preview drew twice as much traffic.) After that article came out, I actually felt a little bad for Lineburg, knowing what a heap of trouble he had brought on himself for speaking so candidly about the prospects for the new school year. Yet here we are today, and a heap of trouble is we’ve got — school districts are hardly alone on that. In retrospect, it was probably a smart move for Lineburg to prepare people for the reality of a school reopening plan shot through with bad options and tough choices. Cold reality feels the same whether it’s applied early or late.

I’m firmly in the camp that says kids need to be back in school, in person and face-to-face with teachers and their classmates as soon as humanly possible. Losing the spring semester was an educational disaster; losing the coming semester or year will cause further, almost unimaginable damage to our children’s development, their mental and social well-being, and to the well-being of families throughout Halifax County. (Let’s not even start with the spinoff effects, such as the hit on the local economy and a labor market that includes lots of parents who both hold down jobs.) Yet what are the chances that schools can remain open if teachers, and heaven help us, kids start to come down with COVID-19? Trying to run schools full-blast in a pandemic, absent an effective and coordinated strategy for containing the disease, is a futile pursuit. You can’t do it.

The challenge ahead for our county school division is complicated by an abundance of magical thinking elsewhere. In Florida, home of roughly 10,000 new coronavirus cases each day, Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered schools to open in the fall, damn the torpedoes and the consequences, too. As bad as Florida’s track record is, Trumpified red state governors can’t hold a candle to the man himself; our deranged president is apparently upset with CDC school reopening guidelines that he views as too restrictive. Batten down the hatches; there’s a Twitter storm of stupid ahead. Given this sorry competition, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam doesn’t even belong in this paragraph; Northam’s response to the pandemic has hardly been perfect, but at least he’s taken the crisis seriously from the beginning. Even so, the Virginia Department of Education under his command has waffled on guidelines for a 2020-21 school reboot. At every level of government, you can detect a tendency by policy makers to pass off problems to someone else. All of which, by the way, makes the willingness of Lineburg to discuss specifics for reopening school so early in the process all the more impressive.

Then there’s Mecklenburg County. I have known its superintendent of schools, Paul Nichols, going back to the time when he was the No. 2 in Halifax County Public Schools under then-Superintendent Paul Stapleton. Nichols has been a superb leader of Mecklenburg’s school division, shepherding the construction of a modern school complex to replace the county’s hopelessly outdated middle schools and high schools, and he can claim dozens of other accomplishments during his tenure there. But I think the decision by Nichols and the county school board to reopen Mecklenburg schools full-time (the start date has been pushed back to Sept. 8) is a mistake that’s going to blow up in everyone’s faces. There’s no reason to believe Mecklenburg is any further along than Halifax in solving the massive, multifaceted problems of sending kids back to school in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s possible, if not likely, the opposite is true. Even in Halifax County, some of the early ideas floated by Lineburg for resuming school — such as morning and afternoon shifts in the school day — have more or less disappeared. Instead, HCPS has settled on alternating in-person classroom dates, the so-called A/B attendance schedule, that most school districts plan to adopt for the fall (along with an unpalatable menu of online offerings.) There’s a reversion to the mean taking place here, and it’s fair to wonder if this is the best we can do.

On that point, everyone, yours truly included, will have ideas for a better plan, likely to the annoyance of educators who are hands-on inside school buildings. In deference to Lineburg & Co., who in my view have earned some latitude through their obvious engagement with the issues raised by the pandemic, I’ll make my contribution to the take it-or-leave it genre with an eye toward two other groups: the Board of Supervisors, and everyone else who make up our local school communities.

To the Board: the prospect of school shutting down entirely in coming weeks and months due to the coronavirus is real — it’s a genuine emergency situation. You need to be prepared for this; if there’s some helpful role you can play in keeping the worst from coming to pass, that’s a role you need to embrace. Which means it’s time to start thinking seriously about ideas for mitigating and controlling COVID-19 in the school setting through the judicious application of money. (We can hope for help from Richmond and Washington on this front, but we should be prepared to move on our own.)

One idea I’d like to see receive more consideration: moving classes outdoors, where we know the risks of spreading the virus are lower. (Given the awful HVAC systems at the high school, outdoor classes at HCHS would especially make sense.) A reasonable environment for outdoor learning would require tents and other equipment, and perhaps extra school staff to make the logistics work. This possibly cockamamie idea aside, there will be many other needs for additional personnel if we want to maintain educational quality in our schools. As county supervisors, you enter this picture because Halifax County sitting on a cash reserve of nearly $30 million that can be used in an emergency. This is one. In normal times, the money is properly considered off-limits for operational needs. The time may soon arrive when we’ve got to be creative and bend the usual norms.

To parents, caregivers, and all others: Yes, everything sucks. Kids are suffering enormously with this miserable new reality, but so are adults. Schools teach children how to socialize, but schools foster socialization for grown-ups, too. School communities can be a powerful force for good — for uniting people around shared goals and standards of conduct.

Let’s assume that when September rolls around, students will be required to do certain things that many adults either aren’t doing or refuse to do — such as wearing facial coverings. (If everyone wore masks, kept six feet of physical distance and generally took more personal responsibility for stemming the spread of the virus, we might not be in the mess we’re in.) You can blame Fox News and Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump for this atrocious mindset — and I do — but there’s not much one can do about that, not until Nov. 3, anyway. Schools, however, do have leverage: either kids and their parents follow the rules for limiting the virus, or they can stay home and take part in school online. When this predicament presents itself, I do hope people will back up the teachers and principals who run the show, using persuasion, peer pressure and other soft tactics to bring any wayward members of the community in line. I’m optimistic PTOs can be effective in getting the word out, too: we’re all in this together, with each of us having a role to play.

A big part of America’s COVID-19 problem is the refusal by all too many people to accept the idea of shared responsibilities— to see mask wearing as something you do to protect others, not a political statement. It’s a lot to ask that schools should be a platform for enforcing responsible behavior among adults, but we rely on schools to address other social problems and deliver public goods, so why stop now. If people are as eager and desperate to get their kids back in school as they appear to be — rightly so — who knows: maybe there is such a thing as turning crisis into opportunity.





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