On Monday, the Halifax County Board of Education approved to return students to school based on new data.
Superintendent Eric Cunningham approached the discussion of reopening regarding Senate Bill 37, requiring the school to implement an in-person learning option for students in grades K-12.
On Sept. 17, Gov. Roy Cooper announced schools are allowed to conduct in-person learning for grades K-5 under Plan A (minimal social distancing), while students in grades 6-12 could operate under Plan C (virtual learning) or Plan B (in-person and virtual).
SB-37, “In-person Learning Choice for Families,” was introduced in response to recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state research, revealing children are less likely to contract and spread COVID-19 than adults when proper safety protocols are in place.
The bill also highlights the need to return children to the school as data shows an increase in children’s mental health visits and high failure rates in remote learning classes among middle and high school students across the state.
Read local school district reactions to SB-37 at bit.ly/307pH7a.
Though SB-37 received bipartisan support in the General Assembly, Cooper vetoed the bill on Friday, but is expected to be overridden in the Senate.
Cunningham said HCS was the first district to lose an administrator when Principal Teicher Patterson of Enfield Middle School died in July from COVID-19 complications.
“And when we got knocked out like that in July 2020, it sent us on one knee,” he said. “And I had no problems with being the last school division to have a discussion about reopening. But that time is now — has come, and which Halifax County Schools means that we really need to have a discussion about it.”
Cunningham told board members he wanted to have the opportunity for the school district to create its own reopening plan that was not mandated.
“But, it’s always been the Halifax way to follow a certain process to determine what the metrics are saying and what the science is saying, and what the data is saying,” he said.
Assistant Superintendent Tyrana Battle displayed a recent survey showing 424 people responding to a question on whether they would send their child back to school within the next 30 days if schools reopened.
• 89.6% said no
• 10.4% said yes
Another chart displayed a question for staff, asking if they would feel comfortable returning to school conducting face-to-face instruction using social distancing guidelines — 160 staff members responded.
• 62.5% said no
• 37.5% said yes
Of the staff respondents, 160 also answered a question asking if they plan to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
• 80% said yes
• 20% said no
Halifax County Health Director Bruce Robistow joined the conversation. He said there is positive news with COVID-19 positive cases declining from the highest average of 60 cases per day to nine a day. The positive rate dropped from 17.1% a month ago to 15.5% three weeks ago to now 6.2%, with the goal being 5% in the county, he said.
“That’s an incredible number because our number of positive cases is affected by the number of tests that we do,” he said. “But our% positive is a good constant measure as to how bad COVID is in our community. So, we’re now down to 6.2%, and this has been a sustained decrease in the overall trend for positive cases over the last month.”
Robistow said more than 7,000 people in the county had received the first dose of the vaccine, and more than 3,000 have received the second. He mentioned the county has been red — critical community spread — according to the County Alert System, but expects that to change with the number of positive cases decreasing.
“Your overall positive cases — ours have gone dramatically,” Robistow said. “Your hospitalizations — which ours have almost disappeared. All of these things would indicate that we will more than likely drop a color probably in the coming week.”
He said his department continues to encourage people to receive the vaccine, which is open to educators. He said he is very impressed with how popular the vaccinations have been, but there had been some no-shows for appointments made. He said 140 people did not show up for their appointment last week on one day.
“That’s almost 50% of no-shows,” Robistow said.
The Rural Health Group held an event in Jackson where more than 600 vaccines were planned to be administered, he said. More than 200 people did not show up for their vaccine dose in the first two hours, Robistow said.
“We’ve sent out a press release today, and we have opened to Group 3 completely because I need to get these vaccines in arms,” he said. “When we have no-shows like that or people not interested, I’m going to end up wasting vaccine, and I’m not doing that. We continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.”
Robistow also said, even if someone is fully vaccinated and not at risk of hospitalization or severe illness, that individual can still spread the virus.
“I hope that while you’re planning that you’ll incorporate adherence to the three Ws in every aspect of the planning,” he said. “It’s very positive information. I am nothing but pleased with the direction that we have gone. We’re so close to that target of 5% positives that we’re just doing a great job, and that’s a testament to our community as a whole.”
With the new information, Cunningham recommended to the board that pre-K — 5-grade students return on March 15 for in-person learning with the option to remain virtual. On March 22, Plan B begins for grades 6-12 with two cohorts with alternating weeks and virtual options. The school day ends at 2 p.m. with remote learning.
The board approved unanimously.
Cunningham thanked the board members.
“This is a conversation that we knew we had to have and thank you very much for entrusting us with your children,” he said. “Parents, you will see more information rolling out on how we’re going to reopen in the safest way possible. To all the teachers, we got your back. You will have the PPE [personal protective equipment] that you need.
“You now have access to vaccination, and now it’s time for us to start bringing our children back on a staggered schedule. And we will be just fine.”
On Monday night, the Senate reconvened after 7 p.m. and failed to override Cooper’s veto on SB 37.
In other news, the board members were asked to approve a $35,000 lottery fund request application for a contract to repair the roof of a building at Northwest Collegiate and Technical Academy.
Anthony Alston, director of operations of HCS, said the plan is to use the funds to place a 50-year metal roof on the 600 building at NCTA. Alston said the building was built in 1979 and did not remember a roof being replaced on it in his 19 years of working with the school district. He said no bids had been put out until engineers conduct a request for a proposal.
“Once we get the specs on it and DPI [Department of Public Instruction] approves the specs, then we’ll put it out for bid,” Alston said. “Then I’ll bring that contract back to you for approval as well as another lottery application to pay for it.”
He said that the project is expected to cost about $300,000, that includes engineering. Alston said the school district has a little more than $400,000 in the unallocated balance of lottery funds.
Board member James Mills questioned the engineering company REI Engineers tasked with conducting the RFP.
“I did a little bit of looking into the background in the staff that they have,” Mills said. “Not a black face in the house.”
Board member Charles Hedgepeth reacted to Mills’ comment.
“I think we need to bid the engineering thing out too, not because of what you said about the color of someone’s skin Mr. Mills,” Hedgepeth said.
Mills said that he believes that any company that is using public funds needs to have some diversity in it.
Hedgpeth said that the school district could not just go with one company.
Cunningham explained that the company conducting the RFP would just draw up the plans that are then submitted to DPI and then are approved. DPI will then send it out to eligible roofing companies, he said. Cunningham said that they could also take the RFP and post it on their website for all vendors to receive.
He added that he needs the roof to last 20 years, which needs to be properly engineered for that longevity.
If approved by board members and county commissioners, Alston said construction could possibly begin on the 30-day project July 1. He also urged board members to make a decision soon, as the current roof continues to break apart and prices for roofing materials are rising.
Mills said the issues he raised need to be looked at in the future if time is of the essence to begin the process.
“In the future, we ought to look at who we’re doing business with,” he said.
Board member Tyus Few made a motion to approve the proposal, with Mills seconding it with the motion carrying.