Even With Vaccines Coming, Southern Virginia District Stays Virtual
By Amie Knowles
January 19, 2021

A postponement to hybrid learning occurred despite COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon.

COLLINSVILLE – On Jan. 7, the Henry County Public Schools (HCPS) School Board voted to return to hybrid instruction. But with COVID-19 cases climbing and vaccines delayed, plans changed for the southern Virginia district.

On Nov. 9, 2020, the district went virtual after a consistent local spike in COVID-19 cases. The call came less than one month after the division opened school buildings for the 2020-21 school year on Oct. 12. With no change from the school board during the Jan. meeting, families geared planned for physical classes.

But then the numbers started growing. And students from multiple schools started getting sick.

The Change

No, there wasn’t a secret school board meeting that the public missed. Instead, the division evoked a previously proposed method for closing the schools quickly, if need be.

“Technically, the board voted at a previous meeting to give the superintendent the authority to determine shifts between hybrid and virtual instruction for the remainder of the year,” said Monica Hatchett, HCPS director of communications. “Our team meets several times each week to review information from a variety of sources and the data we have from new cases over the weekend as well as information received from local experts led to the disappointing decision to postpone.”

The virtual learning decision hinged on several contributing factors, not just the area’s COVID-19 case count.

“Unfortunately, positive COVID cases and quarantines are still quite high within the school division and are even higher than ever in the community,” Hatchett said. “Because we would not be able to appropriately staff in-person opportunities next week and because we strive to give parents as much advance notice as possible when we make a learning style change, it was determined [on Monday] that we will postpone our return to hybrid learning and continue to evaluate the data available to us.”

The Hybrid Approach

In Oct., students who attended hybrid classes did so on a staggered schedule. Students made up two groups, Group A and Group B. Students who attended on A days were in school Monday and Tuesday and learned virtually from home Wednesday through Friday. Those going to school on B days attended in person Wednesday and Thursday. They learned virtually from home Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

However, less than half of the division’s students signed up for hybrid classes in the fall semester. The number didn’t come as a shock to division officials.

“About one-third of our students were signed up to participate in hybrid learning in the fall. We are currently surveying families to confirm their preferences for second semester to ensure accuracy in that estimate for the spring semester,” Hatchett said. “The percentage is about what we expected. We have heard from many families that they are concerned about the risk of inter-generational spread that may come with students having exposure to others while participating in in-person instruction.”

Hatchett noted both positive and challenging aspects that the division faced as students continued on a virtual learning experience.

“Many students are thriving in the virtual learning environment. They are able to both participate live and view recordings of their classes, engage in one-on-one sessions with teachers and communicate at any time with school staff via email,” Hatchett said. “Certainly, we believe that the in-person learning experience is of great value for all students because it not only helps them to gain skills in critical content areas, but also in the skill areas we all need in life: collaboration, critical and creative thinking, communication and citizenship.”

Phase 1B Vaccines

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the inclusion of school personnel in the COVID-19 vaccines Phase 1B group.

Along with school and childcare employees, 1B also covers police, fire and hazmat workers, corrections and homeless shelter workers, food and agriculture workers, manufacturing employees, grocery store workers, public transit workers, mail carriers including United States Postal Service employees and private company workers, officials necessary to the continuity of government and adults age 75 and over.

There’s no specific date on the calendar for HCPS employees to receive the vaccine. However, the division conducted a preliminary interest poll.

Over half of the division’s employees responded to the poll. Of those who responded, 69% expressed interest in the vaccine.

While the upcoming vaccine distribution for the division is important, it isn’t the biggest factor in students returning to school.

“We have a number of staff members – and substitute staff members – who have expressed interest in receiving the vaccine and we are working with [the Virginia Department of Health] to offer that as soon as it is available in our health district, hopefully within the next 2-3 weeks,” Hatchett said. “While our cases and quarantines were the driving force for our postponement, we know that the vaccine will help many feel more comfortable with returning to in-person learning.”

Monitoring the Situation With Vaccines

Keeping an eye on the COVID-19 situation locally, HCPS created a division dashboard.

The dashboard provides the school community with a transparent summary of COVID-19 cases. The weekly update indicates the number of new COVID-19 cases for students and staff members.

Once the numbers decrease, the division will resume discussions about hybrid learning opportunities.

“We have not set a new date, but it is our goal to give parents at least one to two week’s notice before returning to hybrid instruction so that they have time to [make] childcare arrangements, etcetera,” Hatchett said. “Our team will continue to evaluate case [and] quarantine data and the data we receive from VDH and [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to ensure that we are making a decision that will best suit the needs of students and staff.”

Amie Knowles reports for 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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