WISE — COVID-19 dominated much of the Wise County School Board’s first meeting of 2021, with one board member absent because of the disease.
Board member Vicki Williams told the board on Tuesday that member Donnese Kern allowed her to tell the public she was absent because she had tested positive for COVID-19.
Division Superintendent Greg Mullins told the board that COVID-19 vaccinations for school employees — among the second group given priority under Virginia’s vaccination program for frontline essential employees and state residents age 75 and older — had begun on Monday after state and local health officials told the division Thursday to prepare for the shots.
“It’s been a fast-moving ball rolling downhill,” Mullins said of the vaccination program, adding that the number of staff receiving the shots is progressing well.
Division Technology Director Scott Kiser told the board that technology staff and school personnel have managed to ensure all students have had access to computers and devices for remote instruction during the pandemic.
Even with typical wear and damage to devices, Kiser said, the division’s purchase of accidental damage protection along with funding in the school budget has allowed purchase of sufficient devices for the 2021-22 school year.
While numbers of computers are sufficient for the division’s approximately 4,000 students, Kiser said household connectivity has been more problematic. While about 30% of student households did not have access to good internet connection before the beginning of the school year, he said, that number climbed to 40% when some households ran into data limitations with their service providers.
Kiser said some households also are in areas where they cannot access internet because of a lack of cellular data service. A $180,000 state technology grant allowed the division to get Verizon portable hotspots with unlimited data plans for the pandemic’s duration, he said, but some households still are in areas without cell service.
A satellite internet pilot program — Starlink — by SpaceX has allowed the school system to install satellite internet connections in 45 households, Kiser said. The Starlink program, if successful in the Wise County area, could lead to equipment for another 90 households, he added.
“Our students needed that service now,” Kiser said, adding that expansion of service networks by other providers in the Starlink demonstration area could have taken from five to 10 years otherwise.
With the county’s growing reliance on remote learning technology, Kiser said that means other challenges with students being sometimes isolated and dealing with emotional and anxiety issues. He said that parents can be confident that their students using county school-issued computers also have filtering software to prevent inappropriate web use.
Another program being used on the school computers will alert school officials when students are typing anything related to weapons, suicidal thoughts or bullying, Kiser said.
The board later approved an extension of a federal CARES Act-funded program to cover up to 10 days of paid leave for employees having to quarantine for COVID-19 exposure. Superintendent Mullins said that, while Congress’ December passage of additional pandemic relief extended the deadline for spending CARES Act money for a year after the initial December 2020 deadline, the latest relief bill did not include more money for the leave program.
Mullins said the school budget includes enough unspent substitute teacher pay to let the division self-fund the program through the end of the current school year. He said that additional funding might become available under a Democratic-controlled Congress after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20.