By Taylor Boyd
A motion to restart school virtually for the first two weeks of January failed after a tie vote Thursday.
Schools Superintendent Dean Gilbert recommended the move as a strategy to the help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 that is expected to occur over the Christmas holidays.
“Students are scheduled to return to class on Jan. 5, 2021. As stated, we have seen a rise in cases in the county that have affected the school system since Thanksgiving break. With the Christmas break in the near future, the school system personnel are concerned we may be in-line for another surge of cases the first couple of weeks after the break,” Gilbert said at the Dec. 10 meeting of the Patrick County School Board.
“Given what we have seen the past nine days, we think it might be prudent to consider moving the school system back to a full virtual modality from Jan. 5 to Jan. 15. The school system would then move back to the current hybrid plan with students returning to in-person instruction on Tuesday, Jan. 19,” Gilbert said, adding this plan would allow for a 14-day period between the holidays and when students return to school.
He said even though there has been a rise in cases, the school system has had no indication the virus has been spread within the school setting “due to the mitigation strategies that have been put in place and are being followed by the staff and students the situation we have dealt with involve people being exposed outside of the school setting.”
Gilbert added that as of Dec. 10, there were 44 active cases in Patrick County. He noted that 16 staff members and 60 students were quarantined.
“We have had 35 cases from Dec. 7, through today (Dec. 10),” in the county, he said.
“It looks like you’re looking … you’re looking at some worse case scenarios and closing school, but what if they’re low? Are we looking at the first of February to go to four days,” said Walter Scott, of the Smith River District. “I saw it on the news this morning I think Virginia is getting 500,000 vaccines this week.”
Scott said he thought the board’s goal was to get everybody back to school as much as possible instead of less.
“I’m just not too crazy about closing schools or virtual schools for two weeks. What is the plan to get them back in school if cases are low,” he asked. “It’s time to set a goal where our numbers can get back four-days-a-week and five-days-a-week. We’ve been doing this for eight, nine, ten months almost, and there are kids (who have) committed suicide all around us.”
In his opinion, Scott said “there are worse things that’s happening to our staff, our students, their parents than COVID. I just think we need to be looking for a way to move forward and get everyone back to school and not out of school.”
Gilbert said the guidance handed down by Gov. Ralph Northam is more restrictive.
“I think in order to get the students back in four-days, and that’s everybody, there’s going to have to be some movement at the government level to say you can go to that,” he said. “I think there’s going to have to be some change to our guidance unless the school board wants to overrule that guidance and say we are going to start going four-days with everybody.”
Gilbert said that school administrators favor students attending in-school instruction four or five days per week “as soon as we can and are cleared to.”
Brandon Simmons, chairman and of the Dan River District, noted an editorial that was published in another county stated, “that we and the superintendent should take a cue from other school systems and keep our kids out of school and do virtual only, and that was the opinion of the paper it said.”
Simmons said he believes other school divisions “should take cues from us. If we’re able to give our kids at least two days a week, and we’re doing as good as we’re doing, then that shows other people can do it too. There’s no problem in what we’re doing, and we’re doing a pretty good job.
To Gilbert, Simmons said “I think others should call you and take cue from you. I think you’re doing a good job; your administration is doing a great job. You can’t do any better than what you guys have done.”
Amy Walker, of the Mayo River District, said “we should remain as we are and react as needed. Because kids coming up on their second semester and it’s nearing college time, graduation time, and we’ve got more kids that are virtual that are failing that need to be in school. I truly believe that we need to continue like we are and try to push forward to get our kids in school more than we can. More than what we are doing now.”
Shannon Harrell, of the Blue Ridge District, noted that while she understands “the logic behind going virtual, I believe the kids are benefiting” from in-person education. “But I also, with the cases rising and everything, understand” the proposal to return to virtual instruction after the holiday break.
“I would support that for the two weeks,” Harrell said, and added said that as a teacher, she knows students benefit from being in a classroom.
“But if we don’t have the staff to do it, then we can’t do it. I support virtual for the two weeks after Christmas,” she said, adding that laying the groundwork and planning now to return to virtual only instruction also won her approval because it gives teachers an opportunity to plan.
“If we come in in January and the numbers are high, they (teachers) have to turn that around (return to virtual) so fast, and that’s hard, Harrell said.”
She made a motion to start virtual for the first two weeks of instruction of the second semester, and then return to the hybrid model on Jan. 19. Simmons seconded the motion.
Harrell and Simmons supported the motion; Scott and Walker voted nay.
Gilbert said the school system would prepare for shutdown anyway.
“Should staff not be available to operate the schools, that would be a communication to you that we would have to do virtual because we don’t have the staff to operate the schools, and we don’t have available” substitutes, he said, that even though schools are closing down Dec. 18th, administrators are essentially “going to be on call for this.”
In other matters, the board:
*Heard an update from Raina Brim, a representative of Patrick County Friends of Equity and Justice, on the progress of the group.
In October, “many school employees participated in Inclusive Leadership Training. This training focused on restorative strategies for social justice. Participants will now provide training to individual schools to ensure all staff members are meeting the needs of our students,” Brim said, adding to committee is continuing to work on the creation of a Teacher Toolkit to assist staff in discussing diversity with a Pen Pal Program being an example.
Brim said the committee created the survey questions that were administered to students in grades 6-12, and the results “shined a lot of light on areas we are doing well as a division as well as areas we need to improve.”
She said the survey indicated strengths and areas of concern.
Among the strengths were “84 percent of students responded positively that adults treat students of different races, ethnicities, and cultures fairly; 71 percent of students responded students from a variety of races, ethnicities, or cultures are included in social groups; 81 percent responded that students treat other students from different races, ethnicities, or cultures fairly.
Concern included 34 percent of students felt that adults discuss major events related to race. She said, “24 percent of students, which is almost one-fourth of our student population, feels that confederate clothing makes them, or others feel uncomfortable and implies negative feelings toward minorities; 41 percent of students responded that sometimes or always they hear racial slurs on school premises.”
Brim said the group would like for the board to consider actions to address the areas of concern and thereby support all students.
“The first one would be an anti-racism policy. It is our understanding that the VSBA (Virginia School Boards Association) may release an anti-racism policy in Spring 2021 when the Virginia General Assembly releases it,” she said, adding it is the group’s desire that Patrick school officials write an “anti-racism” policy for adoption.
She said the group would also like for a dress code update to be implemented.
“Knowing that 24 percent of our student body finds something offensive should help us as adults in our school division take a stand and address our dress code,” Brim said.
*Heard from Alice Willingham Virginia Education Association (VAE) representative for Patrick County. “Using the VHDA school metrics from the CDC many are wondering with the infection rates increasing from 13.8 percent two days ago to 16.4 percent today why is in-person learning still occurring. For the vast majority of Virginia school systems, 10 percent is the threshold. Of the ten locals I served in Territory 6, only your school system and Pittsylvania still have in-person classes. Eight other school boards believed the risk to students and staff is way too great,” she said.”
Willingham said medical experts believe travel over the Thanksgiving holiday will lead to more positive cases.
“Recent studies show that asymptomatic children are more contagious than sick adults,” she said, adding the seven-day moving average percent positivity for Patrick County is 24.7 percent according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) website. Accordingly, how is your school system going to keep staff members safe. Many classrooms, I am told, are too small for six feet of social distancing, and resources are scarce. Staff would like to know the protocols used for contact tracing and quarantines. There appears to be no consistency with these procedures,” Willingham said.
She added another concern that students are coming to school even though immediate family and household members are at home quarantining due the possible COVID-19 exposure.
Ryan Lawson, of the Peters Creek District, did not attend the meeting.