School Board votes to amend school start date

Mecklenburg County Public Schools Superintendent Paul Nichols asked the School Board to push the 2020/2021 school year start date from August 10 to  September 8 at the special Tuesday night meeting. The change is to provide extra time for teachers and staff to go through safety and sanitation protocols, prepare classrooms, and develop virtual learning plans. Board member approved the calendar shift unanimously. The upcoming school year will now run from September 8, 2020 to June 16, 2021. Teachers would be required to return on August 17.  

Mr. Nichols also requested that a resolution be approved by the Board that will be submitted to the Governor and give the school division the opportunity to continue to work with the students, “primarily from the prospective of keeping students, teachers, and staff safe while in the best educational environment”. 

The document, which can be found in it’s entirety on the MCPS website, asks Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the Virginia Department of Education, and the Virginia Department of Health to “grant local School Boards the authority to reopen schools in a manner that is practical, safe, healthy, effective, in step with the Centers for Disease Control school reopening guidance, and in consultation with the local Health Department” The document continued, and to “grant specific authority to create local transportation plans for transporting students to and from school in a manner that is practical, safe, healthy, and effective in consultation with their local Health Department, with no fewer than one student per seat on the school bus.”

The plan to fully reopen schools, instead of the alternating week option previously set forth by school administration, will put extra responsibilities on parents and students according to Mr. Nichols. “We will be sending home a set of guidelines that the CDC with for COVID-19 self assessment screening questions. If any of these questions are answered yes by the students then we are asking that the child stay at home and continue virtual education for the time that it takes to get well.” Attendance records will be required through virtual learning. 

Mr. Ricky Allgood asked how much authority the schools will have to send children home if they appear to be sick or answer yes to any of the CDC screening questions. Mr. Nichols answered, “If a child comes to school and can not answer no to all of the questions, they will be sent home right away and not just for COVID but for anything. Because we are training students and parents to learn virtually, we are in a position to say [that the student] has to go home and until you are well you will be learning virtually.”  

The option will still be available to do full-time virtual education for those who choose to stay at home rather than attend classes face to face. Students electing to physically attend school will be required to wear face masks when they are within six feet of each other.  Nichols mentioned that even though the schools will have a ready supply of face masks for students, cloth masks are preferred based on the ability to wash them at home. 

A study was presented from the Harvard Global Health Institute that has ranked every county in the United States based on the county’s risk levels during the reopening process. A color coded system has ranked Mecklenburg County as yellow, meaning that testing and contact tracing are still necessary but no stay at home orders are required.  

“Our actual number, as identified by the Harvard Global Health Institute, is 3.7 at this point. We started out very high but I can assure you that we will be watching these numbers. Obviously we have seen in the news and everywhere else that the numbers are going up in many states. We are not seeing that happening in Virginia. We are not seeing that happen at this point in Mecklenburg County but we will be watching for that and making adjustments accordingly and I will keep you updated.”

“We are giving parents the choice of sending their children to school with significant health responsibilities or choosing to have there children educated virtually and understanding that at any point a COVID case is identified in our school we could go to full virtual learning. That’s just the reality of where we are right now,” said Nichols. 

Board Members Glenn Edwards, Brent Richey, and Gavin Honeycutt asked questions regarding teacher and staff safety after being contacted by educators. One major cause for concern is teachers and staff that suffer from preexisting conditions. 

“We are going to need to take a good look at all of the teachers and their own existing health conditions and work with them on what guidelines from health officials are for people who have compromised health systems and try to make adjustments for them. There is a lot of work to be done anyway we look at this.” said Nichols. 

Teachers will not have to be reissued their 200 day contracts and they will be paid for the time that has been allotted for training and preparations in August. Mrs. Puffer stated that she had spoken with the attorney and that the changes to the calendar were still within the 200 day. There is also language in the contract that says it will follow the school calendar and “and revisions thereof”. 

Brent Richey commented, “I just want parents and everyone to know what brought about this change. The Board and the Superintendent always wanted to come back as close to normal as we could. That was always our intention, we were restrained by the Governor. When the Governor changed what he said, that’s when we were able to change and do more for our students.” 

According to Nichols, with the guidelines and cleaning procedures put into place, the environment at school may be one of the healthiest places for children to be in addition to getting the nutrition that they need through school lunches.  

Gavin Honeycutt stated that he will vote in favor of the change to the school date but encourages any parents who is uncomfortable sending their child/children back to school not to do so. “That is your right as a parent. I believe in my heart that the faculty and staff have done the best they can do under the circumstances.”

“Obviously parents have expressed concerns but we’re not doing this for the parents. We’re doing this for needs of the students. We’re going to everything that we can for all of the students, teachers, and staff involved” said Nichols.  

There are still a lot of questions surrounding the school’s reopening. Nichols acknowledged many issues that still need to be worked out such as how to socially distance students while in classes and how the schools will go about transporting students to and from school. There will no doubt be more changes before the start of the school year.