Opening Up: What’s The First Week Back Been Like For Henry County?

Contributed photo - Staff members at Axton Elementary School check students' temperatures daily before entering the classroom.

By Amie Knowles

March 13, 2021

Students returned to the classroom on Wednesday in Henry County.

COLLINSVILLE – In a way, things got back to normal for some students in Henry County this week. Wednesday marked a return to in-person instruction, the first time classes have been held in the district since November.

Gov. Ralph Northam gave a directive for Virginia students to have an in-person option by March 15. Henry County Public Schools was already ahead of the game.

At the time, Monica Hatchett, director of communications, noted that the division already had plans in place to start in-person instruction on March 10.

The Superintendent Speaks

When students returned to class on Wednesday, they did so in a staggered method called hybrid learning.

“That means that some students will be coming two days a week, while other students remain virtual,” Henry County Superintendent Sandy Strayer said. “We also have groups of students that will be coming four days a week.”

Six days before in-person instruction started, Strayer noted that 32% of elementary school, 36% of middle school and 42% of high school students elected to remain virtual.

The day after the school year started, Hatchett noted that in-person learners accounted for 4,191 students in the district. Virtual learners rounded out at 2,957 students. The data came from parent surveys.

“It’s just the best thing, to be able to have the students have the choice of whether they are virtual or in-person,” Strayer said. “So again, very excited.”

Strayer emphasized that staff must practice the mitigation strategies outlined in the district’s health plans.

As of March 4, the county noted that 642 staff members received both COVID-19 vaccine doses. A week later, the numbers updated to approximately 70% of staff that chose to take the vaccine. By the second day of school, there were about 100 people who still needed the second dose.

Opening Up: What's The First Week Back Been Like For Henry County?
Contributed photo Rita Browning teaches math class this week at Laurel Park Middle School

The First Day

The day the division geared toward for months came and went. And according to Hatchett, HCPS experienced a great first day of hybrid learning.

Bailey Showalter, a teacher at Laurel Park Middle School, expressed her excitement about the in-person learning opportunity.

“It was just like the first day of school! There were students here that I had yet to meet in person, even though I had been working with them since August,” Showalter said. “Most students do not turn on their cameras during Zoom meetings, so it was really nice to put faces with the names that have been on my roster all year.”

Laura Wright, a teacher at Mt. Olivet Elementary School, also experienced a successful first day back in the classroom.

“The first day back in school on the hybrid schedule was fantastic,” Wright said. “I was so happy to see my students, and they seemed happy to be back in school. We reviewed our safety protocols and jumped into learning.”

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A Safe Space

School staff jumped into action, taking temperatures as students got off of buses and headed indoors. The division took safety seriously, implementing best practices for students and staff.

“We are continuing to follow our state-approved health plan and specifically encouraging distancing, mask wearing and hand washing [and] hand sanitizing throughout the day, as well as screening everyone’s temperatures when they enter the building each day,” Hatchett said.

While the division encourages practicing safety guidelines, there are no current consequences for non-compliant students. Rather, the division asks that students experiencing difficulty complying with specific guidelines contemplate an alternate to in-person instruction.

“There is not disciplinary action associated with mask wearing, but because masks are mandated by executive order those who are unable to wear a mask are asked to consider learning from home virtually rather than attending in person,” Hatchett said.

Henry County Takes Steps

As the county schools embark on their second iteration of in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, the division took some notes away from the fall semester.

First, they decided to delve deeper into enhancing hybrid learning opportunities.

“Balancing students in the classroom and students in the virtual platform during a class session can be very daunting,” Hatchett said. “Based on teacher experiences in the fall, our teams have been working to help devise ways to make that process easier for all involved.”

The division also implemented brand new measures, designed to help students.

“In addition to all of the health and instructional practices in place, we have also added extra social-emotional check ins and engagements for students to help reacclimate them to the new learning format and continue to support the needs they have outside of our buildings as well,” Hatchett said.

With two months left in the school year, things suddenly seemed similar to the first half of March 2020.

“Many of our students and families have expressed that returning to the classroom is a step toward normalcy for them,” Hatchett said. “While we are also excited to progress toward what we know as traditional learning, we are especially glad to have students have the opportunity to interact with their peers in person and we hope that being in the buildings – even for two days each week – will help them continue to build those foundational relationships that are critical to their success.”

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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