Secondary students not likely to return to school this semester

Superintendent Paul Nichols presented the Mecklenburg County School Board with an update on the status of virtual learners and face to face students at the Monday night meeting. 

Mr. Nichols acknowledged some of the difficulties that parents, teachers and students have been facing.  According to interim report information, 60% of virtual students are having trouble with their studies. Wanda Bailey asked Mr. Nichols to elaborate on this to which he responded that on both an elementary and secondary level 60% of students are currently receiving D’s or F’s. Mr. Nichols said that a majority of the students facing issues were virtual learners but that it is expected because “it is a new process” and students and teachers both are still learning how to utilize the programs. Mr. Nichols wanted to make it very clear that even if face to face learning becomes possible for secondary students, parents will still have the option to allow their children to learn virtually.

The current plan to bring students back consists of an alternating A/B schedule for students on both the elementary and secondary level as previously proposed before the start of school. “Safety is our number one priority. We have a plan in place but my recommendation to the Board is that we choose to wait until second semester before we bring the secondary school students fully face to face so we can get through a time period where there does seem to be an increasing number of persons in the community that are not in a contained environment like a prison or a nursing home and that we are seeing statewide and nationwide that the numbers are growing and we can’t control everywhere that our students go.” Mr. Nichols said that the time would also allow students and teachers time to further adjust to virtual learning. 

Gloria Smith asked Mr. Nichols if he could agree that future progress reports would be better once teachers and students become more familiar with the virtual programs and procedures and if he could agree that the safety of the students was the top priority. “Mrs. Smith the safety of our children has to be our number one concern.” He continued, “Every person I know on staff is anxious for our students to come back face to face, that is a high priority, but we must take into consideration the safety as well. We have policies and procedures in place but that simply cannot work the same at the secondary level as they do on an elementary level. I think our students now are safer.”

Transportation continues to be an issue as the 63 passenger school buses are only allowed to carry 21 students at a time. Mr. Nichols stated that if the schools were to reopen on the alternating schedule plan, there would have to be another survey sent to parents to determine which of them will be sending there students for face to face instruction, however, the school is not required to provide transportation except for special needs students. 

“Choosing to bring our elementary students in to begin with turned out to be a really good opportunity, not just from an academic perspective, but also because of the increase in COVID cases that we have seen in the county and in the state, it would seem that the elementary schools could be the safest place for our students.” 

Nichols says that the procedures put into place for quarantining classes with a teacher or student who tested positive for COVID have helped them to not only contain any outbreak but also helped them to determine that the virus was not contracted at the schools. So far there have been a total of three classrooms in the elementary schools who have had to quarantine. 

The Superintendent also stated that recently it was determined that a student at one of the secondary schools, presumably Park View High School, had tested for the virus. Eight teachers and ten students are now under quarantine at this location. “I think it reenforces a concern that I and staff have about the issue of how quickly we would choose to bring secondary students back to school.” 

Mr. Nichols said that the elementary students are easier to contain if the need should arise. These students are grouped together in one class and rarely interact with other students and teachers. At the secondary schools students have to enter the hallways to change classrooms and deal with at least four teachers and different classmates each period. 

Chairman Gavin Honeycutt stated that the Governor gave each locality the freedom to determine when and how students go back to school on March 13 of this year. “We’re almost eight months into that process and what concerns me is that I still hear you saying ‘we’re going to come up with a plan’. Well we’re eight months into it and I’d like to know what’s going to change between now and February that will be a significant change compared to what we’re dealing with right now to bring our secondary students back?” Mr. Nichols explained that a plan has been made for an alternating schedule but at this point the issue is when is it safe. 

Mr. Honeycutt expressed his concern for the mental issues that students are facing and asked, transportation aside, why the schools can not be opened for parents who want to bring their kids to school for face to face learning especially given the “alarming” percentage of students who are not doing well virtually. Mr. Nichols again reiterated the dangers that secondary students face having to move throughout classrooms and hallways and that right now it is safer for elementary schools. “With respect I disagree because you could easily have an elementary student come in and infect an entire classroom, a teacher that could bring it into the classroom. It is of my opinion that any parent or child that wants to come back for face to face education should be given that opportunity,” said Honeycutt. 

“I’m not asking for five days a week. I’m asking for two to three days because when you have a family that comes into your place of business who's child has taken their life at ten years old it’s moving because of mental health and it’s real. I hear the teachers talk about this, I hear the students talk about this and again I want to reiterate that it is not just about academics but I am worried about these children mental health. I wouldn’t want it on my watch,” said Honeycutt. 

Wanda Bailey mentioned that some major school districts such as Virginia Beach, Lynchburg, and northern area schools are welcoming kids back into the schools gradually. “Children are not spreading this. If they do get sick, they are not sick for very long and the numbers bare that out.” She also mentioned “compromising” and having a phasing in plan to give students and teachers a chance to readapt to face to face learning. “I don’t think that another three months of this is acceptable.” 

Mrs. Smith, Mr. Palmer, and Mr. Richey all stated that they wanted children back in school but that they come back in a safe environment and that they trust the advice of the school administration and staff. “All I can do when I vote tonight is support whatever plan that our administration thinks that they can do,” said Richey. 

Mr. Richey asked where the Board members stood on Mrs. Bailey’s proposal to send only certain grades back such as sixth and seventh graders. A visibly emotional Mrs. Bailey said that she just feels that the kids, especially the younger students who transitioned from fifth to sixth grade, are not being supported. “We just can’t throw them out there and say ‘You learn at home, you’ll be fine’,” said Bailey. 

Mr. Richey stated that he understood both Mr. Honeycutt’s and Mrs. Bailey’s points about bringing kids back to school but that he would be interested in hearing a plan to phase them in. “I’m not concerned about my kids coming back and getting sick. I think about what central office has to do to pull it off. It’s not as easy as saying we’re back and opening the doors.” Mr. Honeycutt replied, “But we’ve been doing this since March 13.” 

Vice Chairman Dora Garner stated that the school system has had a plan for return but again reiterated the issue with transportation and agreed with what Mr. Nichols was saying about the differences in elementary and secondary students being in school. “I think the best plan is to go with what the Superintendent has recommended and start secondary students in the second semester.” She continued, “If these parents would take more responsibility of their own children then they know if their child is doing the work and they know what that child’s grade is every week.” 

Mr. Allgood pointed out that sooner or later there is supposed to be a vaccine coming and that should be considered. He also agreed with Mr. Nichols and said that elementary and secondary students are two completely different things. “I don’t know about elementary schools but when I was at Bluestone and those kids were changing classes in the hallway, they were on top of each other.”

At the end of the meeting Wanda Bailey made a motion that a plan be developed to allow secondary students to return to school face to face beginning November 9, 2020. Hearing no seconds, the motion was denied. 

Park View Middle School Principal, Jonathan Dixon was given a standing ovation by the Board and those in attendance for his work in helping the school become a Blue Ribbon School, one of only two schools in Virginia to achieve the honor this year. Mr. Dixon took the time to thank his Assistant Principal, Lekeisha Horton, along with the rest of his staff. “I would be completely remise without recognizing the hard work and dedication of my predeccessor, Mrs. Joan Hite.” 

Dr. Paige Lacks presented policies for reconsideration that will be voted on at the November meeting. Policy numbers GBA and JHFA relate directly to training recently received in regards to prohibition against harassment and retaliation in Title VIIII and reflect updates handed down from the U.S. Department of Education that went into effect on August 24. The other two policies, JM and KNAJ, deals specifically with the restraint and seclusion of students. Policy number JM requires the Superintendent to develop procedures to implement the policy. KNAJ deals with how the schools are working with the local school resource officers for a memorandum of understanding for how a school resource officer would fit into the process of restraining and secluding a student. 

Board member, Wanda Bailey, asked Mr. Nichols if there should be someone to investigate any claims, other than Dr. Lacks, who is currently in charge of performing investigations into policy violations. Mrs. Bailey stated that Dr. Lacks has a lot on her plate already and that she has worked for many schools in the system and wants to make sure that the process will be “fair and unbiased”. Mr. Nichols explained that the duties of the investigator are separate from the duties of the compliance officer.

General Registrar, Jason Corwin, requested the use of Bluestone Middle School for the election on November 3 at last weeks Board of Supervisors meeting since the voter location in that district is no longer available and long lines are expected at the polls. The Board approved the proposal at the end of the night.