Despite 17% Positive Test Rate, Pittsylvania Keeps Schools Open

By Amie Knowles

December 9, 2020

Local school board argues about remote versus in-person learning ahead of the New Year.

CHATHAM-George Henderson feels the current COVID-19 situation in Pittsylvania isn’t safe. He understands the challenges with going remote, in an area where it can be hard in places to find an internet connection. But the school board member, who represents Tunstall, pointed out during Tuesday’s meeting there are other problems. 

“Our teachers, our administrators, our workers are scared. The words ‘collateral damage’ never did make such sense to me until I was in Vietnam. And our powers to be were willing to sacrifice the safety, the welfare and the lives of other people to obtain a goal or a mission,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, they even wondered what that goal was, what that mission was. And I know that we’re not talking about Vietnam, but we’re talking about the most important thing in our lives today. There’s nothing more important in business than COVID-19. And I feel like that we, too, are using the phrase collateral damage.”

He asked if the group would sacrifice the lives and safety of staff members, children and workers to obtain an unclear goal.

“I would love to see the schools shut down Friday, this coming Friday,” Henderson said. “Shut them down. Wait until the after the first report card. Wait until the second semester in January. That will give us time to sit back and let this thing play itself out. Just hopefully, hopefully by then the numbers will start to go down.”

Henderson also revealed personal information, which played into his opinion.

“I’ve lost a son. That’s hard to swallow,” Henderson said. “I am not willing to use collateral damage to obtain anything in the form of a goal or anything like that, just to say that, ‘Hey, we did it.’ I’m sorry. That’s just me. That’s the way I feel about it.”

RELATED: Virginia School Districts Head in Different Directions

Lack of Connection Causes Problems

In July, the school board planned for virtual learning. They used nearly $1 million in CARES Act dollars to provide students with Chromebooks and extended WiFi. However, that doesn’t solve the problem for some students that live out of signal range. 

Alice Willingham understands the challenges involved. She serves as the Virginia Education Association’s UniServ director for Territory 6 and in that role acts as the representative for Pittsylvania County. She pointed out, however, that if Pittsylvania wants to succeed, then the district needs a solution to these internet issues. 

Willingham noted that out of the 10 school divisions she covers, only two hold classes in person.

“Of my 10 locals, just Patrick and your county, are still allowing in-person learning. Danville, Halifax, Henry, Martinsville – they are all remote. Due to high infection rates, even Mecklenburg is going to a remote-only model for both students and staff,” Willingham said. “And your infection rates are much worse than theirs.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health’s school metrics webpage on Dec. 9, Mecklenburg experienced a 6.5% COVID-19 positivity rate compared to Pittsylvania County’s 17.2% COVID-19 positivity rate.

Willingham came to the area last year from Maryland. As she looks for a place to plant her roots, she expressed that she’s considering several things.

“To safeguard health, partnerships are needed to solve the internet issue,” Willingham said. “As a future Virginia homebuyer, strong internet connections will be at the top of my must-have list. As will a school system that safeguards its employees when the infection rates are near 17%.”

The representative urged action from the school board concerning the issue.

“Your district must provide effective remote learning activities so that next school year when infection rates are this high, there can be remote learning,” Willingham said.

What’s The Problem? 

All school board members didn’t see the issue, however. Cassandra Crump, Dan River representative, noted that she received a few messages and one or two phone calls expressing COVID concerns.

“I do hear the ones who have expressed concern over the numbers. I think from the very beginning of this process, we said that we would follow the guidance and the guidelines of the CDC and our local health department. And I’ve felt like from the very beginning, that’s what we’ve done. And I still feel like today, that’s what we’re doing,” Crump said. “We’re utilizing those sources to give us the health data that we need to make decisions and we’ve done that from the very beginning. That’s kind of how I feel about things. We are continuing to follow the guidance now that we followed back in September.”

Burton argued that if evenly divided, each member of the school board represented approximately 9,000 people in the county.

“Now if you get a couple of hundred calls, that’s not a lot of calls,” Burton said.

The chairman also expressed that there’s a lack of communication. While the division made information available about their COVID-19 response, not everyone seemed familiar with those resources.

“I’m still getting indication from our staff that [they] are not knowledgeable about what we’re doing,” Burton said.

The chairman noted several attempts to get the information to the staff.

“We still have staff that haven’t taken the time to get information, factual information, instead of listening to what they’ve heard or things like that, that some of them do,” Burton said.

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The Vote

In total, the discussion about in-person versus virtual instruction spanned more than half an hour.

Ultimately, Doss made a motion to delay in-person classes in January for at least two weeks. Henderson and Ramsey supported it. But in the end, the motion failed by a 4-3 vote when Crump, Staunton River representative Don Moon, Westover representative Kevin Mills and Burton voted against the proposal. Until further notice, Pittsylvania County Schools will remain one of the school districts still operating in-person.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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