One to a seat on school buses. Socially distanced desks. Breakfast and lunches eaten in the classroom instead of the cafeteria. And face masks for all.
These were some of the new health and safety rules that greeted students Monday, when all but one of Henry County’s 14 schools reopened for the first day of face-to-face instruction on a hybrid schedule.
Meanwhile, that same day, school metrics from the Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention showed Henry County in the "highest risk" category for potential school transmission. This is based on 235.5 new cases in the community per 100,000 persons in the past 14 days.
School officials said Meadow View Elementary School will remain on 100% virtual learning until Oct. 26 as a precautionary measure after two positive cases of COVID-19 were discovered last week.
The cases were “unrelated to one another and unrelated to the school,” district spokesperson Monica Hatchett said Monday.
“In an abundance of caution, it was determined that several staff members should quarantine for a period of two weeks,” Hatchett said. “Because the period of quarantine may prevent our in-person learners from receiving the support they need from highly qualified professionals, we have decided to have all Meadow View Elementary students continue with remote learning until October 26.”
Elsewhere in the district, the first group of about 2,408 students from preschool to high school returned to classrooms on Monday. Under the hybrid AABB plan, children whose families chose in-person learning will attend school two days a week (Monday and Tuesday, or Wednesday and Thursday) with three days a week of virtual learning.
In all, 4,408 students out of more than 7,000 chose the hybrid option, Hatchett said. That number also includes preschool and first-grade students, who are attending four days per week.
About 2,683 students chose to continue fully remote learning, according to Hatchett.
Parents indicated their choices on electronic surveys or by calling their child's school. If they did not respond initially, schools followed up with phone calls or visits to find out their learning preference.
"We have all of our enrolled students accounted for at this time through school contact," she said.
All in all, the first day of in-person learning was off to a "great start," Hatchett said.
"Certainly, the first day is always exciting and can be challenging as well. We saw lots of smiling eyes today as students entered buildings and participated in class," she said. "Our bus routes will continue to be honed through the course of the week, and meal service as well as meals for pick-up for virtual learners is underway."
Henry County school officials have been preparing for this day since schools closed in March. Their detailed plans for instruction and health procedures during the ongoing pandemic, as well as some frequently asked questions, are posted for parents and staff at www.henry.k12.va.us by clicking "Return to School - COVID-19" at the top of the page.
One of the trickiest pieces of the puzzle has been determining bus routes. State and federal health guidelines limit buses to about one-third of their normal capacities and require staggered seating.
Meanwhile, Henry County teachers and staff have raised concerns about the safety of bus drivers, many of whom are older and in the higher risk category for COVID-19, and they do not have health insurance through the district because they are part-time workers.
Hatchett said she did not have the most recent bus ridership numbers, but she said "our bus ridership is currently down from previous years simply because some previous bus riders are currently virtual learners, and some in-person families have elected to drive their students."
Bus riders and students in school buildings are all expected to wear face masks. The district is using some of its federal CARES Act money to provide them for students who do not have their own.
Students are given temperature checks once they arrive at school buildings. Asked why they would not be checked before boarding the buses, officials at the most recent Henry County School Board meeting said this was to prevent situations in which a student has a fever, there is no parent at the bus stop, and the bus driver would be faced with the difficult choice of leaving the student at the curb with no supervision.
Students who are potentially sick with COVID-19 will be sent to the school nurse and isolated from others until they can be picked up, according to the district health plan.
School staff will work with the health department to conduct contact tracing and determine the level of exposure, and whether the closing of a classroom or entire school will be necessary, the district website shows.
"Staff and parents of students will be notified if they have been directly exposed via a phone call from the building level administrator with information about next steps," the website states. "A complete school or district closure will be communicated via mass communication messaging system. Each case is different and we will work to notify those impacted once a case is confirmed and we know students/staff have been directly exposed."
The school district has budgeted other federal relief funds for enhanced cleaning, including Clorox 360 disinfectant fog machines that will be used in all buildings and buses.
Plexiglas dividers have been installed in high-traffic areas, such as school offices, and other portable dividers are being distributed for special education testing and to teachers upon request, officials have said.
Currently, no group activities (such as student clubs) or athletic workouts are allowed until the county schools successfully complete two full weeks on the hybrid schedule, Students Services Coordinator Matthew Woods reported at the last school board meeting.
As it stands now, the Virginia High School League has ruled a condensed winter sports season can begin in December.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.
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