Schools still opening Aug. 20


WISE — County schools are still on track to open Aug. 20 despite a rise in local COVID-19 cases.

This was a dominant topic at the school board’s Tuesday meeting — including the news that nearly one-third of students have signed up for remote-only learning.

The hybrid plan will have students in class two days per week. Group A will attend on Monday and Tuesday while Group B will be in school on Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays will be reserved for deep cleaning and remote learning. All students and their parents will still be able to choose an all-remote option.

Superintendent Greg Mullins advised that slightly more than 1,700 students had signed up for remote-only learning.

That’s almost 31 percent, based on last year’s roughly 5,500 total students.

Mullins said later in the meeting that he and his team expect the number could climb to upwards of 2,000 students.

With Southwest Virginia posting in the “substantial transmission rate” red zone, Mullins expressed his hopes that area residents will continue to take the necessary steps to change the trajectory.

According to data shared by Mullins, Southwest Virginia is currently at a 16.3 percent transmission rate, accounting for 14.4 illnesses per 100,000 people. The goal at this time is to keep that number to 5 percent or less.

Amber Robinson, a teacher at Wise Primary School, spoke to the board regarding her concerns about COVID-19.

Robinson shared a story about one of her pupils from last year who was afraid of getting COVID-19. She wants to be able to tell her students they will be safe, she said.

Robinson expressed concern about the safety of everyone attending school, especially those with pre-existing conditions.

Robinson advised that some teachers had taken retirement because they were fearful for their health. She asked that the school board continue to take all these matters into consideration.

Board member John Graham asked Mullins about the plans in place for if/when coronavirus cases start occurring in schools.

According to Mullins, the first step will be to contact the health department, even at the point that COVID-19 is suspected. Next, the health department may do contact tracing and potentially close a classroom or a wing of a school building if necessary.

Graham asked if an entire classroom would be quarantined if a student in the classroom tests positive for COVID-19.

Joyce Addington, the schools nursing coordinator, advised that the quarantine would be based upon whether other children were in close contact with that student.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, close contact is defined as an individual who has been within six feet of an individual for 15 minutes or greater. Whether the carrier or the potential contact were wearing masks does not change the definition.

Addington advised that additional precautions would be considered with those potential contacts who are a high risk.

Board member Mark Raymond asked whether students who are quarantined would be able to just begin their classes online.

Schools technology Director Scott Kiser advised that teachers are being trained to be able to go online immediately and that a child’s individual transition would be seamless.

Raymond brought up a concern about children going back and forth between being remote students and in-class students and asked how that would affect things.

According to Mullins, families are being asked to make a decision on whether the student will be virtual or in-person, but if there legitimate concerns or issues, they will be taken into consideration at all times.

Board member Herb Shortt discussed his concern with reopening when the area is on an upward trend of cases. Mullins assented that an all-virtual learning environment would ultimately be safer from a physical health prospective. But, he had additional concerns about the mental and social well-being of the children, as well as child care issues and the lack of high-speed internet in some areas.

Mullins advised he and his team still think adopting the hybrid learning plan was the best solution for everyone. He was quick to follow up with his own concern about the rate of transmission trajectory and Gov. Ralph Northam’s potential response to that. While no specific numbers are listed for the rate of transmission shutting activities down, Mullins pointed out that Northam removed the Hampton Roads area from Phase 3 due to the area’s case numbers.

Vice Chairman Phillip Bates asked about the ramifications for not wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines while on school grounds.

Mullins said while medical exceptions will be addressed and face shields will be an option, there will be no exceptions for not wearing a mask.

Graham brought up a concern he had received directly from a parent: When students are released at the end of the day, what is to stop them from loitering, and will someone be there to police them while they are still on school property?

Mullins advised that once students are released from school, there will be no hanging around. Those riding a school bus will leave when their bus is called. Students who drive will be expected to get into their cars and go home.

Upon addressing all concerns from the board, Mullins advised that if he and his staff continue to see trends going “the wrong way,” he will not hesitate to call an emergency meeting. He asked that the school board remain open to all communication.