School Board to reconsider reopening plan

By Aila Boyd

During last Thursday’s Botetourt County School Board meeting, over 20 parents, teachers, and administrators voiced their objection to and support of the reopening plan that was unanimously approved on June 29. 

Given the outpouring of concern related to the plan following its approval, the School Board said that it will consider changes based on comments received before and during the July 9 meeting. 

A special meeting of the School Board is scheduled for July 21 at Central Academy Middle School at 8:30 a.m. to possibly make changes to the current plan. The meeting will also be streamed via Facebook Live. 

Michelle Crook, chair of the School Board, read a statement on behalf of all five members of the board prior to the public comments portion of the meeting. “I wish that I could wave a magic wand and make the coronavirus disappear. I wish I could wave a magic wand and have a perfect solution for every family in Botetourt County. But there is no such wand,” she said. 

She noted that divisions across Virginia are grappling with the challenges of implementing state and federal guidelines that call for social distancing and cleaning measures while also taking into account that there are concerns that students will be significantly impacted academically and emotionally if they are not able to spend five days a week in school. 

It is important to me to include a timeline of how we got to this point tonight,” she said. Following the closure of schools, she said, the interim superintendent at the time met with Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane weekly. The division expected guidance on the reopening of schools from Gov. Ralph Northam during the first week of June, but the guidance wasn’t received until June 9. A regular School Board meeting was held on June 11. Crook stressed that discussion related to the reopening plan was included in the meeting agenda, which was published six days before the meeting. “While the plan was not in written format because we did not get the guidance until June 9, the plan was discussed. The overarching plan was presented by Dr. Massie and Dr. Womack in a publicly disclosed meeting on June 11, but despite their being a published agenda item, no one came to that meeting and spoke publicly,” she said. “We did receive a few comments between June 11 and June 29 from the public, which was very much appreciated.”

During the time between June 11 and June 29, she said, the interim superintendent met with established parent, student, and faculty advisory committees, which provided input on the plan. He also met with Dr. Molly O’Dell, the director of communicable disease control for the Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts, for guidance on the plan. Dr. Janet Womack, the assistant superintendent, created a parent survey, which received over a 90% response rate. 

With those steps, our board felt comfortable taking action on June 29,” Crook said. “We could have waited longer, but we wanted to give parents as much time as possible to plan for the upcoming school year. After June 29, we received an outpouring of comments—some in support of the plan that was released and some not in support of the plan that was released. So tonight, we are reopening the discussion. Some school boards may not do this, but we are. We want to hear what you have to say. We changed venues to accommodate the crowd.” 

Crook stressed that the School Board would seriously consider all comments provided during and after the meeting. She added that by reopening discussions related to the plan, Botetourt County Superintendent Dr. John Russ, who inherited the plan from his predecessor, will be able to suggest any changes he feels are necessary. 

Following Crook’s comments, Russ spoke briefly. 

I want you to know I understand why you’re here. Of the emails I’ve received, there is not one concern that has been brought to me that I truly do not understand. I don’t want you to think I’m sitting here and have nothing to worry about because I have all of my homelife planned out,” he said to those in attendance. “I know some of you are screaming for more communication. As soon as we have communication that is definite, we will get that to you.” 

Russ ended his comments by explaining that he will never apologize for putting the safety of the division’s children and staff above everything else. 

Jennifer Alderson, a teacher at James River High School and one of the speakers, said, “I know this is a mammoth task and you must make the best decisions possible regarding the education, health, and safety of our children.”

 She went on to propose a phased approach for reopening schools, which she said would be a compromise for parents on both sides of the issue. 

Jennifer Simmons, one of those who spoke, said, “I love this county. I love the people. I loved and love the education system here. However, I’m very disappointed with the board’s actions that resulted in your plan of providing part-time education to our children. I’m deeply saddened by the lack of transparency in communication and involvement of the parents that the board chose for deciding the plan for our children.” 

Tammy Riggs, the principal of Colonial Elementary School, said, “I, along with my teachers and staff, would rather have our students welcomed back into our building in August all five days, but we cannot do that safely and responsibly at this time following the guidelines that we were given.” She went on to thank the School Board for approving a plan that “opens our schools in a safe and responsible way.” 

Chris Booth, one of the speakers and the Botetourt County Commissioner of the Revenue, said, “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes. This is definitely a difficult decision to make. My worry with this current plan of two days a week is that it’s going to disadvantage those with poor situations versus other people. It’s just going to greaten the divide. Those with financial means will be able to work with their children and maybe take days off work or send their children to private school. Single parents, people who have low incomes, people who really don’t put a whole lot of effort into their children’s lives…those children are going to be the ones who get left behind. My fear is that they’ll be more negatively impacted by not being in school on a regular basis versus some who will be willing to work and make things better.”  

The plan that was approved at the June 29 meeting included the following details:

PK-12 schedules:

  • Students will receive in-person instruction two days per week and remote learning three days per week.

  • Students will be scheduled for in-person learning on Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. Remote learning will occur on the other three days of a student’s schedule.

  • Students from the same home will be scheduled for in-person learning on the same days.

  • Students may opt to participate in 100 percent remote learning.

  • Face masks are optional at school while social distancing is maintained

  • Transportation will be provided for in-person learning at all Botetourt County Public Schools with one student per seat and required face masks. Students from the same household may be assigned to the same seat.

  • Individual student schedules will be released this month after transportation routes have been finalized. 

The plan notes that student schedules may vary on the weeks of September 7 and November 2 due to schools being closed for Labor Day and Election Day. Additionally, remote learning has been scheduled for all students on November 23 and 24. 

The following considerations were taken into account: students and maximized in-person learning, level of risk, mitigation, meal service, transportation, common schedule for students in the same home, child care, employees, academic programs and services, and the division’s 2020-2021 calendar.

The plan was developed by the superintendent and division and school administrators. 

According to the plan, the division will abide by the Phase Three programmatic recommendations and the health, safety, and social distancing recommendations from the state. It was developed based on information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Education. The Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts communicable disease director consulted on the plan. Additionally, it was noted that information was obtained through the superintendent’s advisory committees, which are comprised of parents, students, and staff, and a parent input survey that received 4,154 responses. 

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