The Roanoke Rapids Graded School District Board of Trustees approved for students to remain in virtual learning through March 16 during its meeting Tuesday night.
At the beginning of the meeting, trustees were presented with an update from the school administration that showed the district’s COVID-19 status. As of Tuesday, there has been a total of 286 COVID-19 incidents (suspected or possible exposures) among staff members, with 13 new ones this week. A total of 692 incidents and 47 new ones among students. The total positive cases among staff reached 47 with six new, and 32 total and six new among students.
More data showed the school district currently has a total of 61 students and 20 staff members quarantined. Also included in the update, Halifax County data showed more than 3,500 positive cases including 1,000 added over the two-week holiday period.
Halifax County Health Director Bruce Robistow provided a statement to the school administration: “I do understand children are less impacted; however, I would recommend distance learning until we can get the numbers under control locally.”
The district’s Clara Hearne pre-K Center closed on Dec. 14 due to a cluster of COVID-19 cases among staff members. The school planned to reopen in January but will remain closed due to the district remaining in virtual learning.
Since the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines to key groups of individuals as a priority, a press release from RRGSD said the health department will begin offering vaccines to teachers and staff 50 years of age or over next week. The vaccine is planned to be offered to staff under 50 years old in the coming weeks.
Public Information Officer Les Atkins said the COVID-19 vaccine is completely voluntary when asked if students and staff are required to take the dose.
“We are making our staff aware of the vaccination dates from the health department,” Atkins said. “That is a personal decision they must make regarding whether or not they choose to be vaccinated.”
Regarding students, Robistow said it is not mandatory for students to receive the vaccine to attend school.
However, outside of the COVID-19 vaccine and to clear up confusion, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website said state law still requires children to be immunized with proof of records to attend schools.
“The immunization requirements apply to all children in North Carolina, regardless of the type of school setting, whether children are home-schooled or attend school in-person or by remote learning,” the website said. “They are required by state law to be immunized based on their age for certain vaccinations as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Atkins clarified and said, “Students are required to have up to date immunization records to attend public schools. In a typical year, those who do not have those shots are not allowed to return to school until they have them.”
Superintendent Dain Butler said that it is now about the safety of students and staff at this point.
“I want more than anything for our students to be in the classroom learning and a return to what we had prior to this pandemic,” Butler said. “We’ve had a number of staff express interest in getting the vaccine. If availability continues at the current levels, they should be getting their second dose by mid to late February.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, another subject regarding the school district’s athletics program was when Trustee Joey Briggs brought up community concerns about keeping sports on the table and keeping students in virtual learning.
“A common thing I hear from the community and from parents and even staff is sports is good enough for our kids, but it seems like to this board that school’s not,” Briggs said. “I’m not directing this question at anyone, and I’m not making a motion or making a recommendation that we nix sports, but I just wanted to throw that out there. If anybody wants to comment on that, you know, I think our community deserves an answer. And that’s kind of the message we’re sending, ‘Hey, your kid’s good enough for our sports teams, but they’re not good enough for our classrooms.’ ”
He clarified the statement is not his opinion but the concerns he is faced with from the public’s view on the situation.
Trustee Michael Salanik added to the conversation that the optics do not look positive for athletics before academics, but the school district is following recommendations from the N.C. High Schools Sports State Athletic Association and following the guidelines.
“I do understand what you’re trying to say, and the optics certainly are concerning for a lot of community members,” Salanik responded. “But like I said, we are trying to follow those recommendations that have been given to us.”
The board did not vote on the fate of the athletics program.
The Board of Trustees will meet again in future board meetings later this month and in February to assess the health data. Additionally, the school district will continue to provide Grab & Go Meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday at Manning and Belmont elementary schools, including extra meal distribution on Thursdays for the weekend. The district will also continue to offer technical help for students who have trouble connecting through the Tech Help Desk.