LOW MOOR — Alleghany County students could return to the classroom four days a week beginning April 7 — if not sooner.

Acting Superintendent Sherman Callahan updated the school board Monday night on a plan to transition students back to the classroom.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, county schools have been using a hybrid educational model since September. That model blends in-person learning with online learning.

But Callahan says that’s about to change with COVID-19 transmission levels trending downward in the Highlands.

“We have walked the line foot for foot since the first of September. Our students have been suffering educationally, physically with extra-curricular activities,  socially and emotionally,” he said.

Currently, schools are seeing 25 percent to 30 percent failure rates among students in at least one core subject.

“We did the best we could with the learning models that we had. It’s time to get these kids back in school and slowly start getting things back to normal,” Callahan said.

Students in grades JK-2 will return to classes four days a week on Thursday.

“Five to 10 days after that, we will use a staggered approach so we do not overload any one school or any bus,” Callahan said.

Schools will adhere to strict COVID-19 safety guidelines. In instances where six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained, students will be required to wear face coverings. 

If the phased approach goes well, all students could be in school four days a week by April 7. However, if the phase-in goes better than expected, that could occur by the second or third week in March.

“I feel really good about where we are community-wise,” Callahan said of the most recent COVID-19 data.

“The numbers have really come down from the spike we had three to four weeks ago,” he said.

Once students return to classrooms four days a week, the hybrid plan being used in county schools will be eliminated. But parents will have the option of keeping their children at home to utilize online learning.

Callahan estimates that up to 30 percent of students  will be taught online through virtual courses.

While school officials continue to develop plans for getting students back into the classroom, discussions are under way on next year’s operating budget.

Currently, budget development is at a standstill while the General Assembly continues to meet in Richmond. The General Assembly session has been extended.

Keven Rice, director of finance for Alleghany County schools, said information from Richmond has not changed since he reported to the school board in January.

However, state support of teacher pay raises continues to be debated by lawmakers.

Rice said a House version of the budget calls for 5 percent pay increases. The Senate version proposes 3 percent. 

Gov. Ralph Northam had proposed a one-time bonus of 2 percent for teachers.

The state typically funds 57 percent of pay increases for teachers. The remaining 43 percent must be covered by local school divisions. And the state money would not cover raises for all employees.

Conferees from the House and Senate will meet to resolve differences between the two budgets.

“It looks like it will be early March before we receive the final numbers,” Rice said.

The Alleghany County Board of Supervisors will give level support to schools next year, Rice said. That means schools will receive the same local funding as they received in the current year.

The school board is also continuing its search for a new superintendent. The board will hold interviews with prospective candidates Feb. 16-March 2 at an undisclosed location.

“This board is going to be putting some hours in,” said Chairman Jacob Wright.

In noting that school board members are paid $125 per month, Wright said: “You all are getting your money’s worth this week, for sure.”

In other business Monday, the board:

— Was recognized as part of School Board Appreciation Month.

— Recognized Lorie Bess and Fred Vaughan as part of School Board Clerk and Deputy Clerk Appreciation Week.

— Approved a resolution designating March as Equity in Education Month.

— Discussed placing a Virginia College Advising Corps Coach at Alleghany High School.

The position would by funded through a $30,000 grant from The Alleghany Foundation.

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