By Brandon Martin
As schools nationwide begin to offer more in-person instruction options, Martinsville school officials are standing by their decision to err on the side of caution.
Chairman Donna Dillard said the division decided “to put safety first” when allowing students back in-person.
“We want the parents and students to know that while we want things like athletics and in school 100 percent, right now it’s just not safe,” she said. “We lean totally on our superintendent to make those decisions and he is doing that out of the safety, security and well-being of the students, parents, and the administration.”
Dillard said board members have received numerous phone calls about the decision.
“We try to call and answer each one of those to address the situation, but please know that it is out of the safety, concern, and well-being for our community as a whole,” she added. “We know the things they are missing, and we feel for them but right now it’s about the safety and concern.”
Noting the speed of returning students, Dillard said that Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley Jr. is “opening up things as he feels safe to do so and we respect his decision to do that.”
Talley also noted “we have some pros and some cons” with respect to learning options.
“We’ve had some parents ━ and they should be ━ very distressed because these senior moments are important. But we’ve also had parents that are really glad that we aren’t taking chances,” he said. “We just want to keep everyone safe. I thank the board for their overwhelming support.”
Earlier in the day, Talley said the division added more students who are receiving in-person education.
“We ended up with 328 more students,” Talley said. “Which brings our total to about 524 total (in-person) now, with around 2,000 students (overall) as an estimate, when you include all of those together.”
He explained that the decision of whether to send youngsters to classrooms is left to each individual parent and/or student.
“We are looking probably at a 50/50 split with our parents overall, in terms of parents who want students to come back” and “parents who want to remain virtual to the end of the year,” Talley said. “Every division is going to be different. Every schedule of the divisions is going to be different, including all the things that happen per division.”
Talley said parents were closer to a “70/30” split earlier in the school year “in wanting to remain virtual.”
He added the range of grades for students learning in-person was wide.
“If you take the ELL students that we already had in and special needs students that we already had in, they cover all grades,” Talley said. “The focus of the second round was special students who are taking SOL tests.”
Talley said it alleviates stress from students who can acclimate to the environment.
“The principals helped us screen those students who they thought needed that additional help,” Talley said. “There may be students who are out there that aren’t doing well right now and parents objected to letting them come. We did not force any students to come. It’s a screened process for students that needed additional help and whose parents consented.”
As of the cutoff for March enrollment, Talley said the division had 1,816 students.
“That’s almost 100 students above what we were projected to have, which means multiply that by $6,000 per in additional funding,” Talley said. “We are the only school division in all of Region 6 that will not” rely on state funds to bridge shortfalls in enrollment.
After this week, Talley said his staff would assess whether the schools can safely accommodate more students within social distancing guidelines.
“Every school is different,” he said. “Every principal went and measured the rooms. They knew exactly how many students they could hold. The rooms are not all the same size. They vary in sizes.”
So far, Talley said the division has struggled with “getting the timing of the feeding program down” as more students have begun to shift in-person, causing buses from the feeding program to be used to transport students now.
“I want to thank our parents,” he said. “We missed some things. They called us and we tried to correct those things. This is Day 1. We are still looking, by the end of the week, to get on a regular schedule. Our goal is to still feed our students whether they are in school or not.”
Talley also thanked the teaching staff for their efforts to teach both in-person and on Zoom simultaneously.
“I think once we get the routes down, pact on our delivery and get the timing” of the “bus schedule, then once we get that then we are going to be okay. Each school has a waiting list of parents who may change their mind because parents do change their mind. You can contact your principal at the school, and they all have a waiting list where students’ names are listed, and if there is room as we get closer to SOLs, then we will try to bring them in. It’s parent preference and parent driven to serve the needs of the students.”
Talley said a challenge is the six-foot distance requirement on buses versus the three-foot requirement in classrooms.
Referencing a bi-weekly briefing with Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James F. Lane, Talley said Lane will be “going to the state department and ask them if we can utilize three feet on buses. That’s the limitation for most school divisions. We don’t know if we have enough drivers. That’s the problem. No school division that I know of has the drivers to accommodate every student that they have right now.”
Talley also addressed the division’s policy on athletics.
“In terms of extracurricular activities, we are one of the two school divisions in the state that did not participate this year,” Talley said. “We canceled sports last year before anybody else did. Two weeks later, the Virginia High School League cancelled games for the whole state.”
Citing Lane, Talley said “52 percent of the COVID cases in schools in the months of December, January, and February were from recreational and scholastic athletics.”
Another factor was the “fact that we didn’t have students in school,” Talley said. “To me, it’s not sound practice to bring athletics to school without being able to have the possibility of bringing students in to learn, which is what we are for.”
Noting the importance of sports in developing teamwork, Talley said not having an athletic program currently was the result of “some tough decisions. We’ve got a rich tradition of athletes. We can go back through the state championships. We hated it for the young people, and we hated it for the coaches.”
But Talley said the school system “did not want to contribute to community spread. Unfortunately, we had three divisions ━ and I don’t want to name them ━ in Region 6 that had, tragically, people to die. I did not want to be a part of that. I always play safe. I always err on the side of safety even on snow days. It doesn’t matter. I can’t see letting Martinsville City Schools lose one employee, one family member. They are all important.”
Moving forward, Talley said the division will be focusing on ensuring students are prepared for upcoming exams and that learning-gaps are closed.
In other matters:
*Talley announced an intent to have virtual and limited in-person gatherings for end-of-year student recognition ceremonies “such as the Big M” and “VMPI transition programs.” He said Martinsville will have transition programs for Albert Harris and Patrick Henry elementary schools, and from the middle school to high school.
“We will also have senior things, starting with the Senior Cookout this week. It will be Friday,” he said. “We will also have signing day for seniors and also in those things, we will be doing t-shirts and things of that nature.”
Talley said proms will be limited on attendees depending on the community transmission rate at the time.
“We will have graduation, but it will be limited outside,” Talley added. “Still outside, you can only have 30 percent capacity. That’s 600 basically for the high school on Dan Greene Field.”
*The school board heard news about Clearview Early Learning Center opening the application period for preschoolers in the 2021-2022 school year. Children must be 3 or 4 years old by Sept. 30, 2021 and they must be a resident of the City of Martinsville.
Parents will need to provide proof of residence, proof of income and other documents provided in the application packet. All documents must be submitted before the application can be processed and approved. Applications will be accepted until all available slots are filled.
Families will be notified of acceptance at the end of June with all scheduling subject to change depending on pandemic restrictions.
Applications can be accessed by visiting the school’s website at https://cecc.martinsville.k12.va.us/content/cecc/uploads/PDF/2021_-_2022_mcps_preschool_application_packet.pdf.
Alternatively, applications can be acquired directly from the center Monday-Friday from 7:45 a.m. until 4 p.m. Applications can also be mailed upon request. Further questions can be directed towards Sheilah Williams at (276) 403-5800.
*Approved a resolution to recognize all Virginia school superintendents for FY2021 as Superintendent of the Year.
*The school board heard from Dr. Paulette Simington, executive director of special education and student services about the annual special education plan.
“We are asking permission to apply for Title 6, federal funds for the special education annual plan,” Simington said. “We are asked to bill the application based on the money we received in the previous year and the amount has been adjusted.”
Simington said the plan includes kindergarten to post-secondary students until the student reaches the age of 21-years-old.
“The funds will go towards three special education teachers and 13 paraprofessionals,” she said. “Total salaries and benefits are $503,000. The additional activities, goods and services, will include travel for special education teachers, related service, professional development, instructional materials, supplies and purchased services.”
Simington said $2,479.32 will be set aside for “students who are residents of the city but don’t attend city schools.”
The total request amounted to $577,998. Simington said the division received $566,974 in the previous year. The early childhood special education fund program needs another $7,121, according to Simington, who added the fund was $7,044 last year.
*The school board recognized the division’s Teachers of the Year. The following received the award for their respective schools: Laura Judkins (Clearview Early Learning Center), Anita Byrd (Albert Harris Elementary School), Amanda Keesee (Patrick Henry Elementary School), Rebecca Vernon (Martinsville Middle School) and Teresa Pendry (Martinsville High School).