As the three county school systems near meetings which will determine what course to chart in the second nine weeks of school, two of the superintendents came before the board of commissioners today to discuss their needs during a special meeting.
The board asked the superintendents to compile a list of their needs so they could review them.
Roanoke Rapids Superintendent Dain Butler told the board he did not have a financial request to present. “I think right now we’re in a good spot.”
He told commissioners the board will meet next week to discuss its options on whether to go to a hybrid plan B reopening plan or continue the second nine weeks using the virtual learning environment as it has done since school opened. “I will not bend my moral compass for the safety of students,” he said. “There is no perfect answer. Everyone is dealing with this. We want to make sure our kids our safe and listen to our constituents.”
Most of the system’s constituents want school to reopen, Butler said, especially for its high school students.
Commissioner Patrick Qualls has two children in the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. “One doesn’t mind it. One hates it. The technology is working really well.”
Qualls said students are being pushed “and that’s what I like about it.”
Weldon Interim Superintendent Jerry Congleton told the board, “Unfortunately, we will need some assistance.”
Weldon is operating in a virtual environment. “That has been a tremendous challenge,” Congleton said. “Our needs have been quite great.”
The system provided 650 Chromebooks and worked with parents and partnered with US Cellular, which provided hotspots to various families.
Congleton said there is still the issue of paying for internet service and paying $30 to $40 a month for hotspots. “Our parents can’t afford that. That’s one expense we are paying we can’t sustain.”
The school system has to adhere to the same protocols under virtual learning just as it did before mandates related to the novel coronavirus were enacted. “We’re keeping records as if students were in the buildings.”
The Weldon board will be meeting soon to discuss what it’s next course will be and the problems that a reopening will present under state guidelines. “We won’t be able to bring kids back without following guidelines. Busses will only be able to transport 15 students at the most,” Congleton said.
In his list of needs Congleton noted sanitizing supplies, temperature screening equipment, and supplies and equipment for social distancing. “There will be 12 to 15 students in a classroom if we come back. We will have to utilize every bit of space we have.”
The system also needs additional personal protective equipment for students, faculty and staff, the interim superintendent said. “What they think will last two months will not last a month. We probably need to provide a new mask for each student on a daily basis. We have to stockpile that kind of equipment.”
Congleton said additional personnel is needed for technology to enhance learning. “Nothing is going to be as it was,” he said. “Once we shut down, it meant bus drivers can’t afford to not be employed. We found work for them to do that is equivalent to the time they drove the bus. It’s put a tremendous strain on our budget.”
The system will need additional nurses, he said. Currently there are two for the entire system. “Most of these require financial resources. We received CARES Act funding but it’s not enough to sustain us.”
Eric Cunningham, superintendent of Halifax County Schools, told the board, “We’re doing alright in a lot of ways but we do need help. We are focused on honoring our vision and initiative.”
Before schools were forced to shut down, test scores and graduation rates were trending up.
Cunningham’s recommendation to the school board will come in October. “Students learn better in a building. I can’t wait to return to school in a safe and orderly way.”
Cunningham said there are 200 hotspots and the system has hotspots in busses but the issue is connectivity. About 50 to 70 percent of the students need connectivity. “I would love to put a hotspot in every child’s hand.”
He said $109,000 is money he needs to continue to pay bus drivers to deliver meals. “I need my babies to stay focused on those balanced meals.”
When the school system does reopen, Cunningham anticipates the budget for substitutes “going through the roof” as 55 percent of staff have said they have underlying conditions. “It’s hard. It’s the new normal. We’re seeing retirements going up.”
The school system has met the challenges by “doing the best we can with the resources we have,” he said.
Both Qualls and Commissioner Marcelle Smith suggested a survey from the school systems on how many students have access to the internet.
“We’re going to figure out a way to partner and make the best use of these funds,” County Manager Tony Brown said.
Deputy County Manager Dia Denton said the state library board is providing 100,000 hotspots across the state. “We don’t know how many, if any, are coming to this county.”
Smith said additional funds may be available.
Board Chair Vernon Bryant said, “I do think we want to help and we want to do something. I don’t want to kick this can down the road and not do something.”