By Debbie Hall
The Patrick County School Board approved a hybrid plan to reopen schools on Aug. 11, after hearing comments from parents, teachers, and school administrators for most of the nearly three-hour July 21 meeting.
“This is probably one of the most important decisions any board has ever had to make in the history of this county,” Brandon Simmons, board chairman, said before the proposal was approved in a majority vote.
The hybrid plan gives parents the ability to choose between two options:
Under the first option, students will be divided into two groups, with those assigned to the A group attending classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, with remote learning used the rest of the week.
Students assigned to the B group will attend in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Virtual, or remote learning will be used by those students Mondays through Wednesdays.
Parents also may opt for a second, virtual only option which offers only remote classes.
School buildings will be closed on Wednesdays for intensive cleaning and disinfecting, and to allow teachers to work with students attending virtual classes.
Some of the speakers addressing the board identified themselves; others did not.
“I have two serious concerns,” the first speaker said. “To talk about students returning (to classes) five days a week is irresponsible” because students or staff may be asymptomatic and not show signs of illness. “The best option is the blended (hybrid) option,” she said.
“My second concern is regarding the school board’s statement that masks would be highly recommended, but not required. Masks should be absolutely mandatory unless they are eating in a classroom or asking a teacher a question. Please make the medically sound choice,” she said.
A second speaker said she is a mother of two-school aged children. COVID-19 cases have been reported “all over Europe,” but schools there have not been closed. “Masks, I believe, are good for people who are sick. Do we know who all is sick? No, we don’t.”
She said many decisions are driven by fear and she encouraged the board to “not give into the fear factor.”
Later in the meeting, she also broached the possibility of splitting classes between morning and afternoon, with “half going in the morning and half going in the afternoon.” That option would allow students access to the classrooms, but in smaller groups, she added.
Stacey Tatum said she is a teacher in the Rockingham County, N.C. school district, but lives in Patrick. Her children also attend Patrick schools.
“As teachers, we know that students learn best in the classroom. Students have said ‘no,’ hands down that they don’t learn as much online. I think you can’t live in fear. I don’t think it’s fair to just ask every citizen in Patrick County to jump into one option.
“I would select 5-days a week (in class) if that was an option,” Tatum said. “I would rather take that chance with my children and my students,” she said, adding that “we haven’t talked about children at home alone” while their parents are working, or those in living in less than ideal situations.
“Please consider giving more options to those of us” who work or teach full-time, Tatum said, adding that students’ performance in online or virtual classes was “very poor.”
The lack of reliable internet service was a concern for one speaker, who said that although she lives in Patrick Springs, she is unable to get “two bars on a hot spot.”
Written assignment packets picked up from schools are helpful, but she said her child also learns best in the classroom.
“We’re having to set our kids up for future success and we don’t know how long this is going to last,” she said of the pandemic. “My mother has an auto-immune disorder” and her father has COPD.
However, the grandparents have agreed to watch the child when school is not in session, the speaker said, adding that her mother “says that she would rather take the chance” to help ensure the child is successful in school.
Another speaker, who said she is a teacher at Woolwine Elementary School, said “we’re not here to debate whether a child learns better in school or not. We all now that is true. We are here to discuss how to bring our kids back to school safely.”
She said she favored the hybrid option, which will provide two-days of instruction in the classroom.
“If we throw everybody in there for five-days, we look at going back to online learning” as the only option, she said. “We need to start at a slower pace and then hopefully transition to full-time.”
Michelle Adams said the proposed hybrid plan was created by central office staff and school administrators and based on guidelines from various federal, state and health entities. She also noted that some classes have more students than others and practicing social distancing in those classrooms would not be possible if students return full-time.
Other concerns cited included potential teacher resignations, which would result in staff shortages; a lack of substitute teachers; time constraints of the daily temperature checks that will be implemented at each school; the fact that the school nurse assigned to each school will have to manage two clinics — one for the sick and another to distribute required medication and handle other health issues and teacher burnout.
“Teachers have called us in tears” saying “we don’t have the resources. Teachers are in fear for their safety and their students’ safety and have said they will resign if we return at full capacity,” she said.
Students returning to class after vacationing at areas considered high risk for the virus also will be a concern, she said.
“Also, a full schedule now would hurt enrollment” because some parents would opt to take their youngsters out of the division, “and we’re concerned our county will be held responsible and we will have lawsuits” if students contract the virus, she said. “This is the time for you to do the right thing to keep us safe.”
Clyde Deloach, who represents the Blue Ridge District on the Patrick County Board of Supervisors, said he appreciated all the efforts towards reopening schools.
Debbie Nowlin, a librarian in the division, said her workload would be full, as would those of teachers.
“If you put teachers back in the classroom five-days a week, when are they available for those students who have chosen to learn at home,” she asked.
Andre Kidd, a Piedmont Community Services casework manager, said she is married to a teacher. “Five days a week is too much for a child with mental health issues. Five days a week is too long to wear a mask.”
If, for instance, schools reopen for a five-day week, “and you have a PE teacher who teaches all kids and tests positive” for COVID-19, students and staff throughout the school could be affected.
“I ask you to consider not five-days a week, but only two” days, she said.
Kerry Taylor, a teacher at Patrick County High School, reiterated the proposed hybrid plan was developed based on guidelines from health officials.
The plan is “the best we can do with what we’ve got. We know all kids do best five-days a week in a classroom. This is not a normal virus, and we don’t know the ramifications,” she said, adding survivors may suffer permanent long-term damages or neurological changes. “Why not go phase by phase and see what happens,” she asked, as several clapped in approval.
The meeting also included an update from Steve Allen, coordinator of Patrick County Emergency Management and Jason Wood, director of operations and adult education.
Allen provided information about the current number of positive cases in the county; Wood discussed mitigation strategies that will be implemented in buildings and on school buses.
Before voting on the proposal, many board members said they also read emailed comments submitted by those affected and/or concerned about the issue.
Simmons said it would have been irresponsible for board members to not consider all input from residents.
“We are elected officials. We have to listen to what everyone has to say. We have to consider what everyone wants, not matter what we do,” Simmons said.
The board also decided to revisit the matter at the Sept. 10 meeting, and explore the possibility of returning to classes four-day per week based on data collected during 5-weeks of classes and from health officials.
After the meeting, Schools Superintendent Dean Gilbert said in the event a student is ill at school, the child will be placed in isolation and the parents/guardians will be contacted and asked to pick up the child.
School officials also will report to officials in the Virginia Department of Health (VHD), which will follow-up and conduct contact tracing in cases of positive tests.
“We will close while they do their contact tracing,” Gilbert said, and estimated that in those cases, schools may be closed between two and five days.
Schools, however, do not test in house for COVID-19. “We do not have that capability,” Gilbert said.