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Henry County School Board approves plan for spending $2 million in pandemic aid on remote learning, cleaning and safety supplies

Henry County School Board approves plan for spending $2 million in pandemic aid on remote learning, cleaning and safety supplies

From the Martinsville-region COVID-19/coronavirus daily update from state, nation and world: July 10 series
School budget

Henry County Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer

Henry County school leaders on Thursday outlined how they plan to spend $2 million in federal coronavirus relief funds over the next two years, with a large portion going to train and pay teachers as they roll out a new distance learning curriculum.

Another sizable chunk, $635,000, will go to Service Solutions for extra deep-cleaning of school buildings, Clorox 360 disinfecting machines and other supplies, board documents show.

The Henry County School Board approved the district’s application for $2,098,231.94 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency program. It will then go to the Henry County Board of Supervisors for appropriation.

During their monthly meeting Thursday morning, board members also heard parent concerns about reopening schools during the pandemic and learned more about preparations for a socially distanced school year that begins Aug. 10.

Reopening safely could cost the average American school district an extra $1.78 million, according to an analysis released in June by the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials. That works out to an additional $485 per student for expenses such as hand sanitizer, disinfecting supplies, disposable gloves and masks, and hiring more staff like custodians and nurses to carry out health and safety protocols.

In addition to extra cleaning supplies, Henry County Schools will use part of its ESSER allotment to buy personal protective equipment, thermometers and first aid bags for use in the schools. Other supplies will be needed to serve breakfasts and lunches in each classroom, a measure being taken to limit the amount of time students spend in communal spaces.

The largest piece of the grant, $862,682, is allotted for staff time and benefits as teachers undergo training and develop the new remote learning curriculum. This includes stipends for special education staff to modify and prepare materials for virtual learning, as well as testing students outside of school hours.

Another piece of this funding will pay teachers for tutoring, summer school, and after school remediation that may be necessary “in order to address learning gaps that students may have from being out of school for an extended period of time,” board documents state.

For special education students learning at home, $240,000 of grant funds will be spent on assistive technology. Another hundred thousand or so will go towards software licenses and access to online platforms for students to use in remote learning.

Board documents show $83,622.09 of the allocated funds must be set aside for Carlisle School as part of the equitable services portion of the grant required by state and national education officials.

Several states and Washington, D.C. recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos over the rule that public schools must share CARES Act funds with private schools. Plaintiffs include Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Maine and New Mexico.

A safe return to school?

Currently, administrators are planning for most students to physically attend school only two days a week on a staggered AABB schedule. The other three days a week will be for remote learning. Parents also have the option to keep students at home and do 100% remote classes.

The exceptions are preschool and first-grade students, who will be given the option to come to school four days a week, Monday through Thursday. Children of school staff members who are in kindergarten through fifth grades will also be able to attend all four days, Superintendent Sandy Strayer told the board.

Special education students who require more in-person services may be allowed to attend every day, but it depends on their Individual Education Plans, Strayer said.

First grade is singled out, the district’s instructional plan explains, because “it is such a critical year for students learning how to read, and face-to-face instruction is vital.”

Kindergarteners, on the other hand, will have two days in the classroom per week like all other grades. “We do not currently have the staff available to support all kindergarten attending each day with distancing measures in place,” said schools spokesperson Monica Hatchett.

Surveying of parents

As the district plans for August, they are surveying parents about their preferences and concerns about returning to school. So far, parents of more than 3,300 students have replied, Strayer shared with the board.

When asked about how instruction should be delivered, 419 parents preferred the current hybrid model (a mix of in-person and online), and another 419 said they preferred 100% remote learning. Meanwhile, 390 parents chose “in-school only.”

The top concerns parents have expressed are about proper disinfection of school spaces, adhering to public health guidelines, and having in-person interactions with others, Strayer said. Other questions were raised about access to child care for working parents and how students will be able to maintain social distancing on school buses.

During the meeting’s public comment period, the board heard from Cynthia Jeffress, the parent of a rising fifth-grader.

“I am here today as a parent and educator with concerns,” Jeffress said. “Is your hybrid plan the safest? Did you consider parents and your teachers’ input? What happens when teachers are absent, will substitute teachers want to sub?”

Citing the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Virginia, which have surpassed 66,000, she urged the district to continue 100% remote instruction. “Let’s return face to face when it’s safe for our children,” she said.

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

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