By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board voted Tuesday night to allow kindergarten through third grade students in the special education inclusion program to attend school in person four days a week starting March 22.
Superintendent Chris Holland recommended the decision that will double the number of days per week that those students can attend school in person. Normally, students in the hybrid learning program attend class in person two days a week and online two days a week.
School board member Lisa Johnson pointed out that March 22 marks the beginning of the week before spring break.
Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall noted that the date was selected intentionally to give the returning students time to settle in so that additional student groups could be “phased in” a four-day school week after spring break.
Bus Driver Training
School districts across Virginia have struggled with bus driver shortages that have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finance Director Beth Onley said last year, Accomack schools had 105 bus drivers, but the school district has 23 fewer bus drivers this year.
School bus drivers have been doing double runs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pay they receive for the extra work is supplied by Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act.
Onley said one reason for the driver shortage is that it takes three to six months for someone to become a school bus driver.
A prospective school bus driver must apply for the position, schedule the school bus driver class, and wait 60 to 80 days to take the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) CDL general knowledge test, Onley said.
Then the applicant must finish the school bus driver course, take the road test, and wait 30 to 60 days for an appointment at the DMV to become a licensed bus driver.
Paul Brabazon, supervisor of transportation services for Accomack schools, has been working with the DMV, and the Accomack school district has been approved to run its own bus driver testing center.
That means new bus drivers can complete their training and become licensed in about one month instead of three to six months, Onley said.
The Accomack schools bus shop will administer the required vision tests and general knowledge tests, issue the permits, conduct behind-the-wheel training, and administer the road tests.
Onley felt “hopeful that this will help us in order to continue to replenish our supply of bus drivers” and “encouraged” that within one day of announcing the openings for summer school bus drivers, potential applicants have shown interest in the positions, she said.
Irma Cooper, of Bloxom, spoke during the public comment period in support of Accomack schools holding proms this spring for seniors who have missed out on other milestone events during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cooper, a Nandua High School teacher and parent, acknowledged that school board members would not be able to make an immediate decision on senior proms but urged them to act soon.
“These kids need to know one way or the other. Does that student need to put a dress on layaway? Does that student need to start saving for a tuxedo or dinner?” she asked.
Current COVID-19 restrictions would not allow such an event, but Maryland is loosening its restrictions and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam indicated he would follow suit with neighboring states if the COVID-19 metrics supported those decisions, Cooper said.
This year’s seniors have been “hit the hardest” by COVID-19. “They did not have their junior prom, their homecoming, their pep rallies, their fundraisers, no spirit weeks, no senior year – possibly no senior prom,” she said.
Cooper gave the school board members copies of recommended COVID-19 mitigation measures, including having the senior prom after graduation, when students would no longer need to be in the school buildings, and holding it outdoors.
She requested that the school board make a decision by its April 6 meeting.
Student School Board Representative
Cameron Mears, a Nandua High School senior who lives in Melfa, spoke in support of including a student representative on the Accomack school board.
He spoke on behalf of himself and his peers who want their interests represented in school board policies.
“I’m not here to question the decisions of the school board, but listening to online school board meetings in the past … it’s hard to agree with something when there seems there’s no debate, no question to it,” Mears said.
A student representative on the school board could provide a student perspective and encourage debate on policy issues before decisions are made, he said.
The Accomack County Public Schools Policy Manual outlines the process for selecting a student representative for the school board.
Each high school principal nominates two students, and the superintendent considers all the nominees and selects one student, who is subject to approval by the school board.
The student representative serves a one-year term and is expected to attend all regular open meetings and complete research and data collection as requested by the school board.
He or she does not attend closed meetings or otherwise access confidential information such as student records and personnel files.
The student representative serves in an advisory capacity to the school board but does not vote.
Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin reported that according to the Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard on March 16, Accomack had two new cases of COVID-19 and a seven-day average of four new cases per day.
Accomack schools currently have three students, one teacher, and no other staff members who are out of school recovering from COVID-19.