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IW to expand in-person school

Isle of Wight public school students in grades four through 12 will have the opportunity to return to in-person learning in October under a plan approved by the school board in a 3-1 vote.

The plan approved by the board on Sept. 30 allows Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton to make decisions for the rest of the year about opening and closing of schools based on current health data as it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual learning will continue to be available for all students.

With this decision, if the health situation remains the same or improves, Thornton said fourth- and fifth-graders can start in-person learning on Oct. 12, sixth through eighth grade can return Oct. 19 and high school students can come back on Oct. 26. Earlier this year, the board voted to allow Pre-K through third-grade students the option of two days a week of in-person learning on an alternating schedule.

Board chairwoman Jackie Carr and members Denise Tynes and Julia Perkins voted yes; Vicky Hulick voted no. Board member Alvin Wilson was absent. Hulick said her preference was to continue with a mostly virtual approach.

Hulick also works full-time and is a parent with three kids in the school system — a first-grader, a third-grader and a sixth-grader. For now, she said she plans to continue virtual school for her family but “we’ll see what the spring looks like and go from there.”

School started Sept. 8. So far, Thornton said, they’ve had five confirmed cases of COVID-19; however, “those cases have not caused another case within the same space, which means that the spacing and the mitigations are working.” They have also had some instances where they have had to quarantine individuals. None of those individuals tested positive.

“We’re in a whole new world to look at safety, number one, and then instruction in everything that we do,” Thornton said. “We have also had isolations in all of our schools.” This is when a person has symptoms and the school division determines that they must be out for 10 days. “This causes some parents to be very upset. But we must err on the side of safety.”

If a student in school develops possible COVID-19 symptoms, they are sent to the nurse, who in turn, contacts parents to discuss the possible cause of the symptoms. The nurse then contacts the state health department to discuss the circumstances of the case before a decision is made.

Thornton said this policy will continue.

“These decisions are required for the safety of everyone. So I do want parents to keep in mind — yes this is an inconvenience — but would you rather have our schools shut down and we’re not open at all or would you rather have your child, because they’re showing symptoms, sent home for 10 days?”

Speaking after the meeting, Thornton said his greatest concern “is for the teachers and the students who haven’t been back yet to understand how important it is for social distancing and what that means,” he said. “That’s probably been the biggest challenge to remind staff over and over again. I really do think if we do the mitigations well, you’re not going to stop COVID cases, but you’re going to stop COVID cases from spreading within the school.”

Before voting, Carr said the recent communication she’s received from parents, teachers and students has mostly expressed frustration with all of the changes, technology challenges and uncertainty.

Some parents have told Carr “their children are crying and saying they hate school because they just hate the virtual learning piece. They are so hungry to go back to school.” One parent even told her that their child is on antidepressant medication because they are so stressed out by all of the changes. Parents are stressed too, Carr told the board, which met at the county Board of Supervisors room.

“I’ve heard ‘I’m yelling at my child. I’m losing patience and then I go to bed crying because I’m reliving what I just did with my child but it’s because I’m so stressed out.’ That’s some of the things that I’ve heard,” Carr said. “We’re all living in times that we’ve never had to deal with. Everybody’s stressed. And everybody wants to do what’s best for our students and so we just do the best we can with what we know and give options in the process.”