The Spotsylvania County School Board is standing by its plan to continue full virtual learning until bringing students back to school for two days a week in October.
Competing motions made by board members to either extend full virtual learning through the end of the semester or move to the option of 100 percent in-person instruction both failed at Monday night’s board meeting.
This leaves the school division with the plan approved by the board on July 15, which calls for a hybrid model—in which students would attend class in-person two days a week and complete assignments at home on the other days—to be offered beginning Oct. 12.
The motion to reopen the schools four days a week, with distance learning on Wednesdays—and an option for parents to keep their kids 100 percent virtual—was made by Livingston district representative Kirk Twigg and supported by Courtland representative Rob Abuismail and Lee Hill representative Lisa Phelps.
“I humbly ask each of us to unite behind the idea that we need to get our students back into school for instruction five days a week, whatever it takes,” Twigg said during board member comments. “Two days a week will not cut it. If we need masks, cleaning spray, plexiglass shields, or whatever else—let us spend the money to get our kids back to school safely.”
Twigg’s original motion was for students to return five days a week, but he amended it to four days with one day at home for distance learning.
The motion to extend full virtual learning until the end of the semester was made by Salem representative Lorita Daniels and supported by Chancellor representative Dawn Shelley.
“I know this is a tough situation. We all want our babies going back to school,” Daniels said. “Of course we can say the numbers are not going up, but we’re getting ready to go into a flu season. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Phelps and Berkeley district representative Erin Grampp also made substitute motions to either return in-person for four days with virtual learning on Friday or bring elementary and vocational students back to full-time instruction in October, when other students start hybrid. These motions also failed.
Daniels said full in-person instruction is not possible under the governor’s guidelines for Phase 3 reopening.
Shelley said that if full in-person instruction is a goal, the division needs more funding for COVID-19 mitigation—to include cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and assessment of building ventilation systems—and should be allocated more of the $11.88 million that Spotsylvania County received through the CARES Act.
Last month, the school division requested $2.5 million of the CARES Act money from the county to purchase additional devices and mobile hotspots.
The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors voted to fund the school division’s request, but did not authorize the schools to spend the money until the division reports the amount of carryover funding from last fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Shelley said the school division has so far received less than half a percent of the county’s CARES Act funding. In comparison, she said the Caroline school division received 19 percent of that county’s CARES Act funding, King George schools received 26 percent and Stafford schools received 29 percent.
Before and during the meeting, groups in support of both beginning in-person instruction and staying virtual gathered for rallies in the parking lot outside.
About 20 people spoke during the public comments section of the meeting, which lasted in total for almost seven hours. The speakers were about evenly divided in favor and opposed to full reopening.
Many speakers who spoke against in-person instruction at this time were affiliated with the Spotsylvania Education Association or with Safe Spotsy Schools, a group made up of teachers and parents. Several speakers noted that three of the School Board members—Phelps, Abuismail and Twigg—were not wearing masks and said they felt this was setting a bad example for students.
The CDC recommends that people wear masks “in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” according to its website. The health agency also states that “masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.”
In response to the speakers, Abuismail questioned the effectiveness of face coverings in stopping the spread of the virus and said the decision to wear a mask or not should be entirely up to the individual.
“If people would put their faith in God instead of a mask or a piece of fabric, things would be a little better,” he said.
Marc Broklawski, a Spotsylvania parent affiliated with Safe Spotsy Schools, said more tests need to be administered to determine the true prevalence of COVID-19.
“We’re averaging 150 tests in a county with a population of 136,000,” Broklawski said. “That doesn’t tell what’s really happening.”
Kathleen Taylor, a Spotsylvania teacher, said if the division requires teachers to return when they don’t feel safe, many will choose to quit, exacerbating an existing teacher shortage. She said a classroom with COVID-19 mitigation procedures in place will not look like a traditional classroom and is “not worth the risk.”
Taylor also said that if schools do reopen, they might have to close again if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, and that would negatively affect the students with special needs or lack of internet access who are currently receiving in-person education.
Many speakers in support of reopening the schools were affiliated with Open Spotsylvania Schools—a campaign organized by two parents with children in the division.
“The reason we acted is because we heard a rumor that [the division] would be all virtual through March 2021,” said organizer Paul Dotto. “We think we need to get back on a path to in-person instruction.”
Dotto said about 30 percent of Spotsylvania parents indicated on an earlier survey that they would choose virtual learning for their children and another small percentage have opted for private or home school. He said the remaining 60-plus percent who want to be in the school buildings could be accommodated with recommended mitigation tactics in place.
Co-organizer Robyn Schwenk said she works as a full-time nurse and has seen many in her profession quit their jobs because they need to be home to oversee their children’s remote learning.
“It’s really abysmal and especially for those who are single parents or work multiple jobs,” she said.
Parents who want school to reopen said they are concerned about kids losing months and even years of learning if they continue with virtual school. Open Spotsylvania Schools’ website cites an article by consulting firm McKinsey which estimates that if in-class instruction does not resume until January, students will lose between three and 14 months of learning, depending on the quality of remote instruction they receive.
Dotto also said COVID-19 case trends in Spotsylvania support opening the schools, with an average of between 10 and 20 cases daily.
This story was updated to clarify the Board of Supervisors' response to the request for CARES funds.
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