Nelson County Public Schools will remain virtual through the second quarter which runs Oct. 19 through Dec. 18. Initially expected to transition to a hybrid learning model during the second quarter, the school board voted Thursday night in a split 3-2 vote to continue the 100% virtual format the division has practiced since school began in August
West District board member Shannon Powell and board chair George Cheape both voted against the decision.
“Let me just say how profoundly disappointed I am in this. The science and everything we’ve heard tonight has led us to where we should be at a minimum doing hybrid, and I think we’re doing a terrible disservice to our children by this motion passing tonight,” Cheape said.
In addition to the select number of students with special needs and students with individual education programs already being allowed in-person instruction, the motion approved by board members allows for the extra flexibility to bring in students at any grade level who are struggling academically on an as-needed basis.
Following the meeting, Superintendent Martha Eagle said those students would be able to come back as parents allow, but this would be evaluated on a per-student basis and would require teacher input.
Going into discussions Thursday night, Nelson County Public Schools administration had recommended the board approve transitioning into hybrid learning in a phased approach that would take place over the course of the second quarter. Eagle said the division’s recommendation was to first bring in grades pre-K-2 on Nov. 9, grades 3 to 8 Nov. 30 and grades 9 to 12 in January at the start of the spring semester.
Division officials outlined what they said are several benefits of the hybrid format ranging from academic performance, student engagement and mental health.
“A hybrid plan assists with the social emotional well-being of our students,” Director of Secondary Education Janell Stinnett said. “That personal interaction is such a vital key to their progress and success.”
According to Director of Primary Education Kim Douglas, about two weeks ago the division began to bring in some students in grades K-2 who have tested below benchmarks for reading for extra support using a small group setting which she said schools have managed well so far. She said there were 50 students receiving this support between Tye River and Rockfish River elementary schools.
“Our students are thriving on that; our teachers are glad to have their students in front of them to work with them and to teach them how to read and I’m thankful for that,” Douglas told board members.
The results of a parent survey presented to the board prior to the Thursday vote, showed 50% of the 798 parents polled support hybrid learning and at the same time 47% described the virtual learning experience as excellent. Twenty-three percent of parents rated the experience as poor.
Stinnett said 798 responses represent roughly half of current enrollment.
Board members Thursday also heard from Denise Bonds, district health director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, who updated the board on current COVID-19 trends in the county.
As of Friday, the Virginia Department of Health reported Nelson County had 113 positive cases, five hospitalizations and two fatalities, which translates to about 3% of total cases, hospitalizations and fatalities of those reported within the Thomas Jefferson Health District.
Nelson County has the lowest reported numbers of any other locality in the TJHD. By comparison, as of Friday Charlottesville had the highest number of cases and fatalities at 1,438 and 30, respectively.
Bonds said schools in Louisa and Greene counties currently are in a hybrid format and have reported positive cases of COVID-19, but there have been no outbreaks — a sudden increase in cases beyond what is normally expected for the population — within those divisions as of Thursday night.
When asked for her professional opinion by Powell if NCPS could safely operate in a hybrid format given the protocols in place under the division’s health plan, Bonds said those mitigation efforts would make attendance safer, but there always would be an inherent risk of infection.
Bonds added she felt the benefits of in-person learning and socialization outweighed the “relatively small risk that you’re going to have an outbreak in your schools.”
The next Nelson County School Board meeting is at 6 p.m. Nov. 12.