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Cumberland schools to proceed with in-person instruction

Heated residents voice disapproval at not being allowed to speak during special school board meeting


The atmosphere in the boardroom got a little contentious Tuesday morning after the Cumberland County Board of Education accepted Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr.’s recommendation that the school system proceed with in-person instruction when classes resume this week.

That, even though most of the parents in attendance appeared to get what they wanted: The semester will start as originally planned with students returning to the classroom.

Classes resume Wednesday.

“We don’t want it to happen again,” resident John Vaughn said to board Chairman Greg West once the special meeting had adjourned. “We’re watching. We’re paying attention.”

Earlier, Vaughn said he was seeking the opportunity to speak before the board. He had talked in the hallway about how a decision to begin school with students at home would place an undue burden on many working parents.

Due to concerns over the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Connelly was worried about the possibility that there would not be enough staff in the schools once classes resumed after winter break. So rather than start the second semester of the traditional school calendar with in-person instruction, he had considered whether to begin with virtual instruction for three days. 

That way, West had said the day before, the superintendent could determine how much of the staff would be sick or not.

Ultimately, Connelly’s decision was swayed by the results of a survey given to all Cumberland County Schools employees and current coronavirus data that Health Services Director Shirley Bolden compiled and presented to the board Tuesday.

In announcing his recommendation, Connelly said the district would proceed with in-person learning Wednesday through Friday, along with strict adherence to mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The system also will employ additional COVID mitigation strategies in the system’s 87 schools.

Those additional mitigation strategies included temporarily limiting visitors at the schools, reducing capacity at athletic events to 50% and providing optional testing sites.

“No board action is needed,” West then told his fellow board members.

That was because there would be no change to the plan for how students returned to school. 

Board member Carrie Sutton immediately voiced her disapproval that the full board would not get the opportunity to vote on the decision.

“I just think that it should be a vote … And I want to state my concerns. I disagree with it because we have a 20% infection rate,” she said of the coronavirus. “There’s no way I would vote for this recommendation.”

Earlier, Bolden reported that Cumberland County had a 22.4% case positivity rate. As of Tuesday morning, she noted that there had been 1,375 new cases of COVID over a seven-day metric in the county.

At one point, Connelly told those in attendance that if they weren't wearing face masks, they would have to leave the room. Masks are required in all the county buildings, he said.

"That's discrimination," one woman muttered.

She put on a mask.

West countered by telling Sutton that he already had adjourned the meeting and that no voting would be allowed.

“I think we should vote still,” Sutton said.

An unidentified soldier in uniform stormed out, but not before letting it be known that he opposed the lack of public input.

“How can you make a recommendation and not allow public comment during this special session? You have extreme public interest, online and in-person on this topic,” he shouted. “You just put out a bunch of information. You’re about to make a decision without public comments …”

West told the man his opportunity to speak would come Tuesday night during the board’s regular monthly meeting. “This special meeting did not have a public comment section with it, though,” he said. “But we appreciate your participation.”

“This meeting’s over,” West said.

That was when Vaughn shot out of his seat and stopped near one of the entrances to the room.

“I don’t see that it is,” he said to West.

West approached him in what looked to be an effort to smooth things out.

“I think everybody is still seated at the table,” Vaughn said. “Could someone have some courage, sitting at the table, and make a recommendation to allow public comment because of this extraordinary interest to the public?”

A couple of women walked out, with one telling Vaughn, “You got what you wanted. Be happy.”

But Vaughn appeared to be anything but happy.

“I’m one of many tens of thousands,” he said. “Remember that.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Cumberland County, Cumberland County Schools, Board of Education, Marvin Connelly Jr., COVID-19, virtual learning, in-person classes