School Board Meeting - July 14, 2020

The board meeting began with the electronic meeting statement and roll call. Shortly after was the adoption of the agenda. Board member Doerr wanted the school board to adopt the agenda with one amendment, the addition of a discussion regarding the school calendar after action 3.01. The vote on the amended agenda passed.

Preceding the public comment period, Linda Owens gave a statement thanking the public for submitting comments. This meeting received over 122 pages of public comments regarding reopening schools. It was made clear that not all comments would be read that night. Each one will be given a minute and the comments would stop all together at the 2-hour mark. Public comments were only read aloud if they included a name and were specifically about reopening schools in the fall. The school board elected to truncate the public comment period, so that they would be able to decide an option quickly.

Public Comment

The public comment period began with Latonnya Smiling-Freeman raising concerns about overcrowded schools. She asked the board to provide more information about how social distancing would look regarding buses, classrooms, and special education if school were to reopen. Sharon Gilbert-Palmer, an employee, proposed virtual school in the fall and a return in the spring depending on the COVID-19 numbers in the state. She understands that it would be a difficult transition, but this would give the school time to plan for a safe return. Jasmine Sheffield brought up the point that some teachers have double the burden to carry. Some of them are teachers and parents.

Amanda Gibson told the school board that virtual schooling did not work for her young child. She is one of many parents that would prefer a hybrid approach opposed to a fully virtual option. Whereas Cayla Carruthers, another teacher in the district, noted that they are much more prepared for distance learning than they were in March.

One of the worries that parents brought forth to the school board was the education of young children and children with special needs. Camy Harper, an early childhood special education, believes that option B is best for those specific groups of children. They require small group attention and work better with a routine. Cody Nystrom and other parents stated in their comments that the transmission and illness rates are low for children. Therefore, they could return to school and parents could opt to keep their children home if they felt uncomfortable. However, other parents were concerned about the difficulty of teachers would have making sure that the younger children follow guidelines.

Another concern was the state of the school buildings. As Rebecca Bates pointed out many of the buildings are neglected and social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. Gregory Muzik raised concerns from teachers and staff. Margaret Cook informed the board that for some families, online school equates to “no school.” It would be difficult for a family without a stay at home parent to monitor their child’s schooling. Fully online would also be difficult for single parents.

Middle School science teacher, Brendan Trache, agreed with a common suggestion that certain students, such as those with special needs or whose parents are frontline workers, should go to school buildings. Cynthia Mankus, a teacher in the district for over 30 years, shared concerns about the guidelines the school will follow if they go back in person. The specific one she mentioned was the change from 6ft of distance to 3ft. The CDC recommendation is still 6ft.

Returning to school also means purchasing thousands of units of thermometers, hand sanitizer, and masks among other things. Nina Ford let the board know that using money to purchase these items provides a false sense of security to the school community. Quinn Rentz brought up the fact that the RPS has not mentioned what will happen if several teachers and staff get sick. They could potentially spread COVID-19 to students, their families, or coworkers. Alyssa Freeman shared her story with the school board. She is an early intervention reading instructor whose room is only big enough to fit her and her seven students.

Emma Munis stated that the precautions the school board will put in place are not feasible. In a normal school year, bathrooms don’t have enough soap, toilet paper, and paper towels. This will cause the burden to fall heavily on teachers who already buy their own supplies. Lauren Weaver also criticized the district for not thinking enough of the lives of teachers. They could be immunocompromised or have family members that are.

Elizabeth Yeakel brought the school board’s attention to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article that stated that nearly half of the city’s cases are among the Hispanic population. In Richmond, the Hispanic population only makes up 7% of the city’s total population. Yeakel is a teacher at the new Cardinal Elementary School where the population is 95% Hispanic and is worried for her students.

Elizabeth Wait noted that there was not right decision for opening school. Either direction will leave some people unsatisfied. Although she understands that everyone wants more information, the school board must come to a decision. That way they will have time to fix any problems that may rise.

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