By Taylor Boyd
In a 4-1 vote, members of the Patrick County School Board approved a plan that will allow students to attend in-person classes 4-days a week starting March 15.
School Superintendent Dean Gilbert said the decision was made by central office staff. Parents were notified in a call to parents on Feb. 10, the day before the Feb. 11 board meeting.
Brandon Simmons, board chairman, was among several school board members who said they did not know about the decision in advance.
“We didn’t know what this plan was. Everybody knew before us,” Simmons, of the Dan River District, said.
“I personally came here today to ask for March 1,” Walter Scott, vice chairman, and of the Smith River District.
Amy Walker, of the Mayo River District said, the goal has always been to get children back in school as quickly and as safely as possible, but “I don’t feel that this time we were informed before the decision rolled out because usually, if I have a parent call me and ask me about a plan or what we’re doing, I know what’s going on and can answer the question appropriately. I couldn’t this time.”
Rather “I found out from an outside source, from a parent, who called me to tell me, ‘oh so we’re going back to school on March 15. Everybody’s going 4-days if they so choose,’ and I didn’t know anything about it,” Walker, said.
Gilbert said the decision was made after members of the central office administrative team participated in a conference call with the state superintendent of education before Gov. Ralph Northam called on all school systems to allow some form of in-person instruction by March 15.
“The definition of the governor’s goals for in-person by March 15 is defined as the opportunity for in-person instruction, even in a hybrid model. This goal emphasizes the need to maximize the students while following all mitigations strategies,” Gilbert said, and added the school division’s current instructional plans met the Governor’s request.
“Currently, 67 percent of our students” participate in the hybrid instructional plan, and attending classes two days each week, Gilbert said, and added that 33 percent are virtual learners.
Gilbert explained that virtual instruction began Aug. 11. By Sept. 14, the division had transitioned to a hybrid model of instruction, with families choosing 2-days per week or total virtual learning.
On Oct. 12, students with disabilities and English language learners were invited to attend classes 4-days per week; on Jan. 11, students with 504 plans were added to the list of 4-day in-class learners. On Feb. 1, at-risk learners in pre-k through 2nd grade were given the opportunity to attend 4-days per week, and on Feb. 18, at-risk third graders and at-risk high school students are invited to attend 4-days per week. Gilbert said.
School staff will receive a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 26, two weeks before the 4-day in-person instruction starts, Gilbert said.
“Family survey results for the final quarter are being evaluated for additional returns to the classroom. The options to learn will either be full virtual or 4-days per week. The selection the families make in the fourth quarter survey will lock their instruction choice for the rest of the year,” he said.
Gilbert said that it’s important that all the parents fill out a survey for each child in school.
“It’s very important that we have that by February 17, so we’ll know who’s choosing to be virtual and who’s coming 4-days a week,” he said, adding the administration office had received more than 700 responses by the meeting Thursday.
“It should be noted that while 6-foot of spacing is preferred, 3-feet is allowed by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics),” Gilbert said. “Patrick County Public Schools will make every effort to maintain 3-foot of spacing in the classrooms, common spaces, and buses. Students and staff members will continue to be required to wear face coverings, and of course, all changes are contingent upon future and current CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance.”
He said extended bus capacity of two students to a seat has been made available in anticipation of the February 18 additions.
The school system currently is planning for summer school to meet another requirement sent out by Northam.
“Summer school is scheduled for four weeks in June, starting June 7, with jobs being posted for teachers and staff. Staffing will determine locations for in-person summer school,” he said.
Walker made a motion supporting the mid-March opening because “I would prefer that the board support administration’s plan to stick with March 15.”
In supporting the motions, Scott said “I just want to make sure that date is not changed.”
Shannon Harrell, of the Blue Ridge District, attended the meeting virtually.
“I fully support the 4-day return, and I’m thankful that they made that decision as soon as the guidance changed for the 3-feet and the bus guidance they received last week so, I was glad that a plan was put in place to get our kids back in school, safely, but for all 4-days,” said Harrell.
Ryan Lawson, of the Peters Creek District, voted against the motion.
The plan was “a plan that we have approved months and months ago that was left fluid at that time to make changes and progress as we needed to see fit.”
Lawson was among board members to receive letters from parents read at the meeting.
He said the letter came from a mother of a child at Blue Ridge Elementary School who did not want to be named.
“I am writing you in hopes that a plan is being implemented for a return to full-time in person instruction for our children. I have noticed that sports have returned, and I would hope that our county would hold education to a higher degree than recreation. I do understand the importance of physical education and while I would like him to have the option to play, I would much rather he pass third grade.
“I know it has been mentioned that there is not enough staff to cover quarantines. What is your quarantine times for the teachers? Are you going by the physician release to work? The CDC is updating policies frequently and I would hope that you are going by the most up to date research available. Most of the parents that I am talking to are beginning to feel helpless – our children are struggling, and the schools are not addressing or even revisiting the idea to return,” he read.
Walker also read a letter on behalf of a parent who wished to remain anonymous.
“I am sending this on behalf of my children, eight and six, in second grade and kindergarten at Blue Ridge Elementary School who want to be in school, who cry in the mornings to go to school. Since some sports have started back and seem to be going well, I might be wrong, but would like to assume that there is a plan to get kids back in school full time to finish out the school year, at least at an elementary level, at this point, they would have a good four months left.
“I understood last year, and I feel that it’s safe to say that a lot of people were scared and nervous, but we see now what works and what doesn’t. science is showing that social distancing, disinfecting routinely, wearing masks, and handwashing are critical factors to reduce the spread of COVID. Not to mention that schools are one of the safest places with low transmission rates. Evidence by many school systems that are open and safely teachings students with proper measures in place,” Walker read.
“COVID isn’t going anywhere. It’s a virus, and I’m sure it will be an all-year and eventually a seasonal virus to battle. I understand that a lot of factors are involved in making this decision, but at the end of the day schools are here to give our children an education and they are failing or just getting by. I find that inexcusable,” Walker read. “… All I know is that my children need to be in school and that is what I’m fighting for and I can’t be the only one who feels this way.”
In other matters, the board:
*Heard from Scott, who said a rumor is “circling around the county about closing schools, I want everybody out there to understand that there are no plans, no discussions whatsoever about closing any school in Patrick County,” Scott said, adding the Sales Tax referendum on the 2020 ballot was to ensure the administration could keep the school buildings up to code to stay open.
* Noted that Patrick County High School received a donation that would be used to build a baseball or softball field.
* Approved the local special education plan.
* Approved the resolution for workers compensation and school board members.
* Approved the amended personnel reports.
* Approved the consent calendar.