Coronavirus related expenses total nearly $350,000, and counting

The unprecedented impact on academics and students’ lives has been devastating enough. Now it’s revealed that in the space of only a few months COVID-19 has taken a huge financial toll on Rappahannock County Public Schools.

RCPS coronavirus related expenses total nearly $350,000, it was learned this week, more than half of the $643,000 in federal COVID-19 relief dollars allocated to the county by the U.S. Congress.

And additional funding will no doubt be needed if the county’s elementary and high schools are to reopen as planned next month for the 2020-21 academic year, what with myriad COVID-19 measures that will need to be implemented.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley, who disclosed the costs to the Board of Supervisors at its monthly meeting Monday, said that nine task forces will finish up their research and reporting this week and make their recommendations for reopening schools for the fall semester. 

“Regardless of what attendance model is chosen,” Grimsley told the BOS, “RCPS is still ultimately responsible for educating students with the best possible academic and social emotional learning outcomes in mind paired with health and safety as a priority and focus for moving forward, minimizing risk as much as possible.”

As for the extra required funding, the superintendent also made several requests to the board for CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding to make the transition more feasible under current health and safety guidelines.

Big ticket budget items include improving seating in the high school auditorium so students in larger classes can socially distance, securing Google devices for all students ages four and up, and acquiring new buses to ensure adequate distancing. 

“Schools are obviously the most important thing,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish. “[They] have been most affected by the pandemic.” 

The BOS will have some tough decisions to make as supervisors consider where CARES Act funding is most needed.

“We need to make priorities,” said Jackson representative Ron Frazier. 

Small businesses, fire and rescue departments, and public health initiatives were among the worthy beneficiaries discussed at Monday’s meeting. Keir Whitson of the Hampton district also emphasized the need to update unreliable and antiquated technologies that waste taxpayer dollars. 

In the end, the supervisors agreed unanimously to hold a focused work session to decide on how to distribute the CARES Act relief funds before the next regular BOS meeting in early August. 

Getting back to work

It was almost business as usual for the BOS as it gathered for its first in-person meeting since the statewide stay-at-home order was lifted. All in attendance wore face coverings and chairs were spaced at least six feet apart. The meeting, usually held at the Rappahannock Courthouse, was moved to the elementary school auditorium to facilitate social distancing of the attendees. 

After several months of Zoom video conference meetings in which the board could only discuss essential topics, there are big questions about how the county will proceed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Topics covered not only preparing the schools for opening in the fall, but making Sperryville safer for pedestrians, amending the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT’s) Six-Year Secondary Road Plan, and hearing several applications that have been on hold due to the pandemic.

The board took up a resolution to improve pedestrian safety and slow down traffic along Main Street in Sperryville. The resolution, co-sponsored by the BOS and the Sperryville Community Alliance (SCA), asks VDOT to conduct an engineering study “with options to install crosswalks on Sperryville’s Main Street and enhance pedestrian safety on the only public sidewalk on Main Street” and to find ways to calm traffic through the village.

The agenda item sparked a lively back-and-forth during the meeting’s afternoon and evening public comment periods. “We need to stop the problems before Sperryville becomes a real calamity,” said resident Diane Bruce of the Piedmont District, noting that the SCA has been discussing solutions to speeding and tractor-trailer traffic for some time. 

Kim Bader, also of the Piedmont district, said that she agreed something must be done, but added “I’d like to see more planning with input from residents before a resolution comes before [the board].”

Kerry Sutten, president of the SCA, told the board that the resolution “did not come out of the blue” and was the result of two years of meetings and discussions. 

Sperryville resident Barbara Adolfi described traffic as “too fast” and sidewalks “inadequate.” The board will consider adoption of the resolution at a future meeting.

Public hearings 

During a public hearing on VDOT’s Six-Year Secondary Road Plan, the Board and VDOT’s Mark Nesbsit appeared surprised by citizen opposition to parts of the transportation agency’s plan. Under the plan, certain sections of Turkey Ridge Road, South Poes Road, and Keyser Run Road are slated for hard paving. 

In quoting from the county’s Comprehensive Plan, South Poes resident Sandra Brannock warned against destroying the viewshed and expanding the amount of impermeable road surfaces. She said that paving parts of the road that are now gravel would attract more traffic. 

Betsy Parker, who lives on North Poes Road, presented a list of 70 signatures of residents on both roads who oppose the paving plan. “People live on gravel roads for a reason,” she said.

During the board discussion, Chair Christine Smith said, “People like a mix of paved and gravel [surfaces] as a speed deterrent.” She added that residents of Whorton Hollow Road and Pullins Bluff Road “would welcome any improvements.” 

Curry explained that the four projects already on the plan--including the South Poes Road project--had been approved some time ago and were already in progress. To remove the South Poes Road project, he said, would result in the loss of several hundreds of thousands of dollars in VDOT funding for the county’s road improvement.

The board voted three to two to maintain the list of roads planned for improvement, but also added Whorton Hollow and Pullins Bluff to the list. Wakefield District Supervisor Debbie Donehey and Hampton Supervisor Whitson cast the dissenting votes. 

The board voted unanimously:

  • To approve a special exception permit application from Cliff Miller requesting to build more than one dwelling to be used as tourist homes on his Sperryville property. 

  • To readopt the county’s continuity of government ordinance presented or amended following public hearing. The ordinance will remain in effect for six months following the end of Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

  • To raise the administrative fee from $10 to $20 to cover the cost of criminal or traffic cases in which the defendant is convicted. 

Other actions

The board made a few new appointments on Monday afternoon as well. Judy DeSarno was appointed to the Library Board of Trustees, Taisha Chavez was appointed to the Rappahannock County Community Policy and Management Team, and Jessica Burleson was appointed to the Social Services Board.

In light of recent events within the Planning Commission, the BOS voted four to one to explore the legality of appointing a FOIA Officer to the commission. “This is a very difficult time to keep the integrity of our [work processes] intact,” said Chair Smith. 

Last week the commission met without a FOIA officer, a fact that, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff “casts doubt on any votes taken” during that meeting.

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