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Residents tell Franklin County School Board to reopen schools

Residents tell Franklin County School Board to reopen schools

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The Franklin County School Board heard pushback from parents and teachers who felt the system’s school reopening plan is overcautious during a public hearing Monday evening. For 50 minutes, speaker after speaker told the board that the county’s children need in-person instruction.

As the board discussed the challenge posed by a limited number of classrooms that will accommodate only 10 to 12 students at a time because of social distancing, the livestreamed proceedings were interrupted by audience members chanting, “Bring them back!”

Franklin County Schools Superintendent Mark Church said that everyone involved wants to bring students back, but it has to be done safely. However many students physically return to school, the system will be complying with state and federal guidelines, he said.

What’s certain is that the board will revisit its plan to reopen schools, with a new vote scheduled for Aug. 3.

On July 13, the school board unanimously adopted a plan that would have opened schools Aug. 10, with students in preschool through second grade and some special education students attending in person and all others starting out with remote learning. The plan conformed to Virginia’s Phase 2 guidelines for reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though Phase 3 guidelines were in place by then.

One week later, during a work session, the board dropped that plan, voting 5-3 to delay opening day until Sept. 8. Board members who supported the change said they had heard from teachers concerned that physically returning to school would be unsafe. During that session, the board announced plans to hold Monday’s public hearing for further feedback.

However, at Monday’s hearing, no one advocated for keeping schools closed and students home. The overwhelming majority of county residents who came to the podium unequivocally rejected that idea, stumping for a range of possibilities from having students attend on alternating days to fully reopening as normal. Several emphasized requiring or encouraging students to wear face masks and providing them if necessary.

Samantha Strong, a Franklin County schools social worker, said that for some students, restricting them to virtual learning only guarantees that they fall behind. “The gap is only going to get bigger and we will not recover from that,” she said.

Beyond classroom instruction, schools provide for the mental health of students, along with things such as food and hygiene items and medical screenings. “If we’re not in school, we cannot meet those needs.”

Stephanie Lovelace, president of the Franklin County Education Association, raised the issue of workers’ compensation, and the idea that it might be difficult for teachers who test positive for COVID-19 to prove they contracted it at work. “What will this mean for our teachers? We all want to be back in the classroom.”

She emphasized that while teachers do have multiple concerns about safety, “We all went them to come back to school.”

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Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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