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Special board meeting called for reopening plan

The Suffolk School Board will hold an emergency meeting on the division’s fall reopening plans for the upcoming school year Aug. 6 at City Hall, replacing its regular meeting that was scheduled for a week later.

The emergency meeting will begin with a closed session at 5:30 p.m., with the public meeting starting at 7 p.m. The full agenda for the originally scheduled meeting will be a part of the newly scheduled meeting.

It comes as many Hampton Roads school divisions, including those in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Portsmouth, have announced plans to begin their school years with virtual learning.

Two members of Suffolk’s board, Karen Jenkins and Tyron Riddick, backed an all-virtual start to the school year after hearing a presentation on fall reopening from Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice. Suffolk’s board was to vote on its reopening plan at the Aug. 13 meeting, about three weeks prior to the start of school Sept. 8, but some members pushed for an earlier decision after hearing from members of the public.

The four options presented publicly earlier in July included a pair of hybrid models that have students in school one day per week, with either three or four days of virtual learning. The other two are a 100% virtual learning model and a 100% in-person model.

Rice and Gordon said at the July 9 board meeting, however, that a fully in-person learning plan would not be recommended for Suffolk Public Schools. On the fall reopening registration form that parents were asked to fill out by July 24, parents were asked whether they preferred one of the hybrid models or 100% virtual instruction for their child. The online registration form on the division’s website did not present 100% in-person school as a choice.

Special education students in district-wide programs would attend school daily under the announced plans, while College and Career Academy Program students would have in-person instruction twice weekly, alternating between CCAP and core classes.

Rice and Gordon also stressed that reopening plans were fluid and subject to change.

With an increase in COVID-19 cases in Suffolk and in South Hampton Roads, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a partial rollback on Phase 3 guidelines to take effect July 31 that limits gatherings to 50 or fewer people, though the latest executive order states that more than 50 people at a work site does not constitute a gathering.

In Suffolk, 1,001 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 48 people have died based on data reported to the Virginia Department of Health through July 30. The seven-day positivity rate for Western Tidewater — inclusive of Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County — is 10.3 percent. Statewide it is 7.2 percent. The state health department does not break down seven-day positivity rates by locality, only by health district.

District health director Dr. Todd Wagner has said that he did not see a way for schools to open for in-person instruction if any locality or region had to revert to Phase 2 guidelines.

Isle of Wight County’s School Board voted 3-2 July 30 to use a hybrid model to begin the first nine weeks of the school year, with elementary and middle school attending school in person on alternating days Monday through Thursday, with three days per week of virtual learning and all high school students learning virtually for at least the first nine weeks. Parents there can also choose to have their children attend school virtually for the first semester.

Southampton County’s School Board, by a 5-2 vote, approved on July 29 a virtual reopening plan for all students for the first nine weeks of school. It had three options — the others a hybrid model with students attending in-person classes twice per week and having virtual instruction for three days per week, and 100% in-person school five days per week.