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Roanoke County community turns out to voice opinions, share ideas about return to school

Roanoke County community turns out to voice opinions, share ideas about return to school

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Dueling perspectives reigned during Thursday’s Roanoke County School Board public comment period, as parents, teachers and students shared opinions about how they think schools should reopen.

Well over 200 people attended Thursday’s meeting, which was moved to Northside High School’s auditorium to accommodate a larger crowd, though not everyone fit inside due to social distancing. Forty-six people signed up to speak, largely split on how the school board should move forward.

The board was originally scheduled to vote Thursday on Roanoke County Public Schools’ proposed reopening plan, but they have postponed the vote until later in July.

A handful of students spoke, the majority favoring a more normal return to school.

Leah Tillman, a rising sophomore at Hidden Valley High School, said she became more anxious and depressed when schools closed in the spring.

“I understand that it is important to keep our physical health in consideration, but I also think we should consider our mental health as well,” she said.

Hailey Ramsey, a rising senior at William Byrd High School, brought several points to the board, including the need to fix bathrooms so the sinks have hot water and better water pressure for health considerations. “I have faith that we can make this work,” she said.

Silas Goodman, a rising high school sophomore and the son of a teacher, said he would rather the district be cautious. He asked the board to remain “fact-based and objective.”

More than a dozen teachers spoke, most of whom said they are also parents. Speaking on behalf of his union’s members, Roanoke County Education Association President Tim Summers said his organization would not support any plan that didn’t follow federal health guidelines.

“One life lost is one life too many,” said Green Valley Elementary second grade teacher Amanda Akers, who said she supported Superintendent Ken Nicely’s “science-driven” plan.

Parents who spoke voiced a range of opinions.

“I’m just concerned the data doesn’t reflect anything else other than we should abide by a five-day school week,” said father Tommy FiGart, saying that the percentage of local positive COVID-19 cases was small in comparison to the population as a whole. He asked the board to give families and teachers an opt-in/opt-out choice to return 100% in-person or 100% remote.

Another parent, Vaunche Staples, whose wife is a teacher, cited the recent rapid growth of positive COVID-19 cases in the Roanoke Valley. He doesn’t want to risk his family’s health or anyone else’s in the “rush” to get students back, he said.

Kristin Dillard, a single mom, said she “cannot provide the type of education Roanoke County can for my children” but believes it’s important to follow health guidelines.

Michelle Austin, who is part of the Reopen Roanoke County Schools committee, urged the board to “fully investigate the opt-in/opt-out option.” She and several other parents cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recently published guidelines that call for students to return to school more normally. Her committee also advocates following health guidelines, such as social distancing and wearing face coverings.

“We love our teachers and want them to feel safe,” Austin said, adding that teachers have reached out to her to advocate for a more normal return.

Several parents who have children with Individualized Education Plans voiced worry about their students receiving the appropriate instruction if remote learning takes place.

“I need him to go to school five days a week,” said parent Amber Janney,.

The proposed plan involves daily in-person instruction for pre-K through second grade students and twice-a-week in-person instruction for third through 12th graders with remote learning, as well as remote learning for those who choose it. Third grade students may also be able to attend daily, Nicely told the board.

Physical distancing and other health and safety protocols are involved in the return to school plan, which reduces the number of students able to fit in a building.

Board member Jason Moretz said following the public comment period that he received 401 emails, about 60% of them in favor of Nicely’s plan. He also explicitly said he will only approve a plan that follows health guidelines, which is what Donald Butzer, the former board chairman, has also said. No members have said they wish to ignore health guidelines, but several have asked whether it’s possible to still follow health recommendations and have more students return.

Board member Tim Greenway, who has strongly advocated for sending all elementary students back, said in an interview Thursday that he is extremely concerned about students’ academic progress and well-being if they aren’t in the classroom, especially students from disadvantaged families.

“All we’ve got is to go off of science and data that we’re given,” he said. “And we’re given data from everywhere. When I said, ‘Everything’s political,’ what I meant was you can get the data to substantiate any position you want to. ... We use the data that we have available. And apparently, from the data, there’s low risk for children.”

He believes the risks of students staying out of the classroom outweigh COVID-19 risks, although he also said, “there’s still no clear guidance, I don’t think.” He also said he understands teachers’ concerns.

The board plans to schedule a special meeting to vote within the next two weeks after receiving survey results.

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