The Warren County Board of Education voted unanimously for the local school system to continue virtual learning through the end of this semester on Dec. 18 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The decision came during the board’s Sept. 8 regular meeting.

In July, the board gave its approval for the school system to use virtual learning from the first day of school in August through the end of the first quarter on Oct. 9. In the meantime, the school system’s School Reentry Committee was to study data trends related to COVID-19 cases in order to make a recommendation to the board about whether students should return to the classroom.

The board’s decision

During last week’s meeting, Warren County Schools Chief Operations Officer Andre Stewart said that the committee took into consideration that a number of universities in North Carolina have moved from in-person classes to online learning due to the number of confirmed cases among students.

He added that COVID-19 cases have been reported at a number of schools that began the year with in-person learning. As a result, some students, staff and administrators were quarantined. Stewart said that some of those schools have moved to online learning or are thinking about doing so. In another case, classes were delayed due to COVID-19 leave requests from personnel and unfilled positions related to the novel coronavirus.

Stewart said that the Warren County school system has staff members who live in Warren, Halifax, Vance, Granville, Northampton and Franklin counties, which experienced dramatic increases in the number of COVID-19 cases between July 14 and Sept. 1.

He added that as of Sept. 1, there were 169,424 cases across North Carolina, 2,771 North Carolinians had died from COVID-19 and more than 3,000 college students were infected with the virus in August. 

Board member and parent concerns

The School Reentry Committee recommended that virtual learning continue through the first semester. At this point, Warren County Schools has identified a number of locations, including school parking lots, as internet hot sports. In addition, the school system is distributing portable hot spots to families without internet access.

However, several board members raised concerns, including those expressed by parents: Can students learn effectively when they are sitting in cars at hot spot locations? What will happen when the weather turns colder? What about students who cannot access the internet even with portable hot spots?

Board Vice Chair Victoria Lehman asked if there would be some way to accommodate students with the greatest need for in-person education due to lack of internet access.

Board member Jennifer Sims said that a parent told her that she would rather have students at school even with the risk of getting COVID-19 rather than not receive an education.

Board Chairwoman Ebony Talley-Brame asked if there could be a modified form of in-person learning for students who would most benefit from working directly with their teachers.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mary Young said that Google Chat offers an option that allows students without internet access to call a number to hear their teachers’ lessons, and that Warren New Tech High School and Warren Early College High School have been storing several weeks’ worth of lessons on flash drives to distribute to students who live in areas where portable hot spots do not work.

She also said that teachers are supposed to call parents each week to check on how students are doing; and, if remediation is needed to help them better understand what they are learning.

Stewart said that having any students on campus means considering the health of teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria staff members. He noted that a number of staff members are older adults, meaning that they fall into one of the high-risk categories for contracting COVID-19. Stewart added that it would be a horrible thing to bear if anyone connected with Warren County Schools died as a result of the virus.

The board concluded that continuing with virtual learning would be the best option for everyone concerned, and planned to reconsider the matter as the end of the semester approaches.

Solutions for those without internet access

Stewart told the newspaper that Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and state resources have allowed Warren County Schools to obtain more than 400 portable hot spots.

He said that Warren County Schools has compiled a list of students and parents without internet access and has distributed the information to each school.

Stewart said that schools have been contacting parents on the list to let them know when they can pick up a portable hot spot at no cost to them. As of last Friday, 300 have been distributed, and Warren County Schools expects to receive more in the coming days.

Only one computer or other electronic device may be hooked up to each hot spot. Each household may receive a maximum of two portable hot spots.

The hot spots shut off between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. and do not allow students to access such sites as social media.

Stewart noted that there will probably be some areas in Warren County where the portable hot spots will not work. If a hot spot is not working, parents should take it to the school system’s Central Office at 109 Cousin Lucy’s Lane, Warrenton.

In those cases, schools will save several weeks’ worth of lessons on flash drives. Students will upload their work to the same flash drives. Parents/students will return the flash drives with the work to their school to exchange for a new flash drive with lessons for the next few weeks, and so on.