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Botetourt County School Board members decry lack of meaningful public input

Botetourt County School Board members were all ears to receive meaningful input from the public during a meeting this week, but were instead frustrated by people who only shared their complaints and conspiracy theories.

The board traveled to the auditorium of James River High School for its meeting Thursday night, and first congratulated the school’s marching band on recently earned awards and a third-place finish during interstate competitions. The band, in turn, paraded into the room, trumpets blaring and drumline rumbling, playing patriotic tunes in honor of Veterans Day.

The James River math department was recognized for its high student achievement scores. Amy Wolford was named the Kiwanis Educator of the Year for Botetourt County.

After those acknowledgements and applause, up came a line of parents and concerned citizens, each allotted three minutes to address the school board about any topic they wanted.

Some of those people said they were against schools openly supporting gay or transgender people. Other people speaking to the board shared home-cooked conspiracy theories that seemed rooted in anti-vaccine sentiments:

Speakers encouraged Botetourt schools to return millions of dollars’ worth of federal coronavirus relief funds, for fear students will be forced to receive COVID-19 vaccines. None of those voices mentioned how the Virginia Department of Health already lists more than two dozen vaccinations on its school and day care immunization requirements.

“There seems to be a lot of misinformation and confusion going around,” said board Chairwoman Anna Weddle, in response after the 15-minute public comment session. “Virginia schools are already required by law to follow CDC guidelines … All we are doing is continuing to follow the law.”

People in the audience began speaking out, causing Weddle to call out two attendees by name and ask them to stop speaking out of turn. At least one person yelled at the elected school board representatives to “stop vaccinating our children,” and another shouted, “you’re complicit.”

“The current CDC guidelines do not include vaccine mandates. We will not be vaccinating your children,” Weddle said. “We cannot give a child a Tylenol without parental permission, as it should be. We are not going to secretly vaccinate your child.”

Botetourt County used federal coronavirus relief funds for its summer academy this year, helping hundreds of kids get the extra education they needed to catch up in school. That program will be repeated in summer 2022, Weddle said.

“This money is a good thing,” she said, over shouting voices. “Extra money to address learning loss is a good thing.”

As the board moved into the bulk of its meeting agenda, including setting school calendars for the next two years, deciding on expenses and hearing updates from staff members and Superintendent Jonathan Russ, the crowd began shuffling toward the exits.

Weddle spoke up again.

“This is the action item point of the agenda, where we do discuss and make votes on very important items,” Weddle said. “It’s really sad to see all of you that came all the way out to James River just disappear now.”

By the time the board opened the floor for public comment less than an hour later, nobody remaining in the audience spoke up to provide input on the schools’ continued reopening plans. This lack of comment prompted a response from outgoing school board member Michelle Austin.

“We had a lot of people in the crowd tonight worried about the American Rescue Plan and these funds,” Austin said. “The sad part about it is, when they had an opportunity to give meaningful input, they’ve all left.”

This article was written based on the live webcast of the Thursday meeting. To watch future or past Botetourt County School Board meetings, go online to Meetings are held regularly on the second Thursday of each month.

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