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COVID-19 causes rancor at Montgomery County School Board meeting

COVID-19 causes rancor at Montgomery County School Board meeting


The Montgomery County School Board voted to beef up the district’s student conduct policy last week.

But at times during the meeting, some board members showed little patience for one another as their feelings about the pandemic continue to be debated.

Things started out testy, with board member Penny Franklin criticizing a transportation plan that fell short of the number of school bus aides she had expected to enforce social distancing. Things escalated from there.

About four hours later, Chairwoman Gunin Kiran had to bang her gavel to stop raised voices and literal finger pointing *between* board member Dana Partin and board member Sue Kass.

In between, there were interruptions, accusations of lying and dust-ups between Kass and Superintendent Mark Miear — all stemming from the ongoing debate over reopening schools on Sept. 8 as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the county.

Partin was one of five members who voted for reopening the schools and Kass, a former county school teacher, was one of two to vote against the plan. Things grew heated when Partin accused Kass of caring more about teachers than about students, who, she said, need to come back to school.

“That’s a lie,” Kass retorted. “You go back and you listen, and I say students. That’s all I ever said, is staff and students.”

Kiran used the gavel to cut in.

“We have to not forget the respect, please,” the chairwoman said. “We are all in it together, and it’s not like we’re against one or the other.”

Partin further accused Kass of unfairly painting board members who voted for reopening as unfeeling.

“You make it sound like the ones who voted to go back don’t care about our teachers,” Partin said. “You insinuate that every time.”

“That’s what you say: I insinuate. I don’t,” Kass responded. “Well, you know what, insinuate is a lot like assuming. You know what it means when you assume.”

Partin had a more civil back-and-forth with board member Mark Cherbaka, who voted for reopening but has since argued that the plan should be delayed in light of rising novel coronavirus infection rates.

“We’re looking at each other like we’re so special, and we can take this risk. And I hope it works out,” Cherbaka said. “If cases continue to rise, at what point are we going to take action? That’s the question.”

That prompted Partin to ask Cherbaka: At what point would he consider it safe for school to resume? He cited benchmarks suggested by public health experts, including the World Health Organization.

“I would like to see cases decreasing for at least 14 days,” Cherbaka said. “And a positivity rate less than 5%.”

But cases have been going up. Virginia Tech reported 238 positive cases last week with a positivity rate of 19.8% after its most recent documented testing. And dozens of students — including a fraternity with more than 100 members — are in quarantine after being exposed to the virus.

Partin argued that university cases have “absolutely nothing to do with our school system.”

Kass and Cherbaka pushed back.

“They live in our town,” Kass said.

“They’re our neighbors,” Cherbaka said.

Kass also pointed out that student teachers from Tech and Radford University will be assigned to county schools.

The increase in university cases was expected, and the New River Valley Public Health Task Force, made up of local public health and other officials, has assured the board that with mitigation strategies in place, schools could reopen safely.

On that advice, in July the board approved a plan to let 50% of pre-K to 12th-grade students attend class on four half-days a week. Families may opt out and choose remote schooling.

Still, some school board members are not reassured. Continued doubt over the reopening comes as other school districts in the state and region are reworking previously approved plans due to pressure from concerned families and teachers.

Kass had earlier in the evening confronted Superintendent Miear with those concerns after he told the board that teachers were excited to be back in the buildings.

“I hear people here say teachers are so excited, but that’s not necessarily true,” Kass said.

She insisted that some teachers have reached out to her to say they are afraid to tell Miear the truth: They are frightened to return to in-person classes.

At another point, Kass cut Miear off when he tried to answer a question Kass had posed to Barbara Wickham, director of elementary education, about the need to bring primary students back to the classroom.

“I need to frame it for you,” Miear said.

“I don’t think you do,” Kass said. “You are not on the school board. I am on the school board. This is my school board meeting, and I’m asking something. And I want her to answer me.”

Miear let Wickham field the question. Younger students, Wickham said, have no experience with the Google Chromebooks or Google Classroom software used in remote learning and need in-person training.

In ending the discussion, Chairwoman Kiran reminded the board that under Gov. Ralph Northam’s Phase III reopening guidelines, schools may have in-person classes. She also pointed out that many families need their children to go back to school, so parents can go back to work.

“There are not enough people at home for their kids to do remote learning,” Kiran said. “The important thing is we have to be all together and do all the mitigation strategies. We cannot wait forever … somehow we have to start and move on.”

Despite the rancor, the board conducted normal business, too. Members unanimously approved extensive changes to the student conduct policy, adding a range of responsibilities for parents, school counselors, nurses and administrators to address behavior and safety issues.

The board also approved adding protections for gender identity and sexual orientation to the school system’s equal educational opportunities policy. The change was mandated by the General Assembly, but schools were not required to enact it until next year.

Miear recommended the board update the policy now.

“I think we ought to be the lead on this,” he said.

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