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Schools chief, board opt for safety of teachers, students


This is the most difficult situation and decision that we have had to deal with,” Donna Vann, a member of the Cumberland County Board of Education, says about principals, teachers and students and all employees returning to the classrooms amid the COVID-19 public health crisis.

COL KIRBY NEWSLETTER COLUMN – The state governor certainly gave all of our public school systems options about returning to the classrooms in wake of the COVID-19 health crisis.

Return to the classrooms, he says, with enhanced restrictions to include social distancing and face masks. Return to the classrooms at 50% capacity, with an emphasis on health safety protocols and social distancing to include face masks.

Or Plan C, the governor says, of remote instruction.

Marvin Connelly weighed the options, and neither principals, teachers nor students will be returning to the classrooms at the outset of this Cumberland County Schools 2020-2021 academic year that is scheduled to begin August 17.

At least not for now, as per the board of education that unanimously voted July 21 in support of the superintendent’s recommendation.

“The safety of our students and staff is our top priority,” says Connelly, the county schools superintendent who recommended remote teaching and learning for the school system at least until September 25, when the board will re-assess the COVID-19 issue.

“Over the last few days, we have received several health and safety concerns about the opening of schools. As promised, we have continued to monitor the situation and will use data to make informed decisions for our students and staff, in consultation with local health officials.

“Delaying the implementation of Plan B (blended face-to-face and remote instruction) until later in the school year will provide more opportunities for us to watch coronavirus trends in Cumberland County and prepare to tackle the challenges of executing such a model.

“We are exploring ways to provide multiple student orientation options and device pick-up opportunities to prepare students to engage in robust, standards-aligned remote learning experiences at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year,” Connelly says. “Teachers may be doing the remote teaching from their classrooms, but those with challenges may remain remote as well.”

Call it a prudent decision.

“Our first and foremost concern is protecting teachers and students from this virus,” board member Carrie Sutton would say at the July 21 special-called meeting.

No argument from Joseph Sorce, another board member.

“Until we flatten the curve,” Sorce would say, “we have to go to remote.”

Call it a common-sense decision on the part of the superintendent, and the board.

“No one wants our schools open more than me,” Greg West, the board vice chairman, would say. “But this is the best we can do at this time.”

There are those who will argue with the superintendent and the board, some saying remote teaching and learning is not like the one-on-one instruction between teachers and students in the classrooms.

I am not one of them.

Better safe than sorry when it comes to the health of principals, teachers, students and all school system employees who could be at risk when it comes to the coronavirus that doesn’t care who you are, how old you, the color of your skin or your zip code.

And keep in mind there are 50,880 students to consider, according to the school system, with 23,515 enrolled in elementary grades, 11,517 in middle and 15,020 in secondary. And 6,012 employees, including 3,055 certified classroom teachers and another 1,313 in student support staff and 1,644 other employees.

“This is the most difficult situation and decision that we have had to deal with,” says Donna Vann of the board of education that includes Alicia Chisolm, the board chairwoman; West, the board vice chairman; Sutton, Sorce, Deanna Jones, Susan Williams, Judy Musgrave and Charles McKellar. “There is not an exact or right or wrong answer of what the correct procedure is for opening schools; only opinions; very differing opinions from parents, teachers, and students.

“As Dr. Connelly has said, the situation is fluid. It would be great if schools could open on a regular schedule, but with this pandemic, it is not possible. We have to make decisions based on the health and well-being of our students and staff. Two weeks ago, the decision to open under Plan B seemed like the right choice. Last week it didn't. After receiving updates on the spread of the virus, Dr. Connelly recommended a slower re-opening of all remote learning. My understanding is that every three weeks things will be re-assessed.

“We will not make everyone happy with any decision we make,” Vann says, “but I hope they understand that each individual board member will vote for what they feel is in the best interest of all of the Cumberland County community.”

The decision is as clear as the superintendent’s recommendation

“The safety of our students and staff,” Marvin Connelly says, “is our top priority.”

As clear, too, as the school board’s vote for now, and many of us are with the superintendent and the board decision.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at bkirby@CityView.com, billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961