By Brandon Martin
Following a directive from Gov. Ralph Northam to reopen all Virginia schools to partial in-person instruction, Martinsville City Public Schools have set March 8 as a target date for the return of select student groups.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley Jr., announced at a Feb. 8 school board meeting that English-language learners (ELL), preschoolers, kindergarteners and special needs students will be the first groups in the division to return to in-person instruction.
“I appreciate the fact that the board has seen fit to put safety first here,” Talley said, praising the division’s efforts to date to remain fully virtual for the duration of the pandemic. “As superintendent, every family and every life is important to me. It doesn’t matter if it is one or two. Nevertheless, with this mandate we are going to be looking at” the staff are proposing a return of “March 8 as a possible time to bring back Clearview.”
Talley said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend younger students return first.
“It’s these students that the pandemic has affected the most,” Talley said. “There is learning loss. I gave an academic report in January and there was very little learning loss. Since that time, we have looked at other data , and what we are having now is not necessarily learning loss due to students not being able to do the work. We are noticing a trend that as the pandemic is wearing on, less students are signing in.”
Talley said a lack of students signing into their virtual system will inevitably lead to a drop in academic scores.
“Participation is a challenge for us now, so we are going to try and gradually phase students back in,” Talley said.
While participation is down, Talley said the division is seeing gains in math and reading scores.
“Everyone felt like a fourth of our students would be failing but it just hasn’t happened to us. The credit goes to our teaching staff which are the best in the world and our brilliant students,” he said. “We are seeing gains from the fall and winter in our math and reading scores. Elementary reading is the same. In most school divisions, it has dropped. We are seeing gains and very few losses in math. Most school divisions are seeing big math losses. We are not seeing any of the amount of losses that we projected.”
Talley said personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing guidelines will still be in place once the first group of students returns, including 3-6 feet of separation during transportation on buses.
“Additional grades will return when it is safe to do so,” Talley added. “There is no timeline for that.”
Currently staff members are being vaccinated, with the second doses slated to be administered the first week of March.
Surveys also are being conducted to gauge the interest of parents in sending their children back to in-person learning.
“We did a similar survey earlier in the year,” Talley said. “Parents can indicate their preference. Once they indicate their preference, we are going to have to hold that solid because it’s going to limit what we can do with personnel. Some school divisions went back to virtual because they ran out of personnel.”
Results of the surveys will be used to determine the number of students returning and the days in-person instruction can take place, according to Talley.
“Studies have shown there is very little spread inside of schools, but we are very much concerned about spread on the inside of households,” Talley said. “If we don’t get a response from parents (on the survey), we are assuming they intend to do virtual.”
So far, Talley said the incoming surveys have “indicated a 50/50 split” from parents indicating their preference for virtual or in-person instruction.
“We are still gathering that data and hopefully by Friday (Feb. 12), we will have a good number for you,” Talley said to the board.
In terms of athletics, Talley said that the decision will be made after students start returning to the classroom.
“Forty percent of the schools in Virginia are not participating in athletics at all. We are one of those forty,” he said. “What’s been recommended by the Virginia Department of Education is to not entertain athletics until we have some students in school. We cannot look at extracurricular activities until we have students present. Once our students come back, we can entertain and get with the cabinet and board on athletics.”
In other matters, the school board:
*Received gifts from the St. Paul High Street Baptist Youth Group in appreciation of its support of students.
*Recognized February as Black History Month and National CTE Education Month. The board also recognized the week as National School Counseling Week.
*Heard an update from Lizzy Fulcher on the Robotics Team. The division has three teams set to compete in a statewide competition on Feb. 27-28. The teams━8810-The Lady Bots, from Patrick Henry Elementary School; 8807-The Magical Unicodes and 8808-Absolute Zero, from Martinsville Middle School━will be looking to build on previous honors.
*Recognized James Li, Katie Rorrer, and Eduardo Betanzo for being named to the Regional Honors Band. Li plays percussion and is seventh chair for the Concert Band. Rorrer plays trombone and is fourth chair for the Concert Band. Betanzo is a tenor saxophone player and he is fifth chair concert band.
*Recognized the Harvest Youth Board for their efforts in feeding local families on Thanksgiving.
*Recognized Janie Fulcher and Sarah Byrd for School Board Clerk Appreciation Week.
*Received recognition from Mayor Kathy Lawson and Vice-Mayor Jennifer Bowles for Virginia School Board Association School Board Appreciation Month.
*Heard an update from Marcia Hairston and Cameron Stokes regarding financial aid and college admissions guidance for high school juniors and seniors.