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Buckingham School Board torn on reopening schools

A motion to continue school virtually for the remainder of the semester failed 3-3 at Monday night’s Buckingham County Public Schools (BCPS) School Board meeting, but parents shouldn’t expect to see students return to physical classrooms any time in the next few weeks.

The tie vote means board members will have to reconsider the motion at the Oct. 14 school board meeting. Until then, students will continue to learn remotely, even as the first nine weeks of schooling comes to a close.

During Monday night’s meeting, 19 individuals stepped up to the podium to give public comment on the potential decision, with an additional 22 email comments submitted to the board. The majority of comments given Monday night were from parents and students who were in favor of reopening schools in either a hybrid or full in-person format, while only a handful spoke in opposition of reopening.

One speaker, Carolyn Colbert, told the board Monday night she’d unenrolled her first-grader from Buckingham Primary after four weeks of virtual learning.

“Virtual learning is not an effective way to teach young children,” Colbert said. “I and many other parents were spending more time on the Chromebook than they (the children) were and they were not learning much from it … School is essential and virtual learning is not a substitute for it, especially younger children.”

Colbert expressed her belief that she and other parents would gladly sign a waiver acknowledging the risk and releasing the school of liability should in-person classes commence.

High school junior Lauren Jamerson told the board she believes the school needs to get students physically back in classes as soon as possible.

“Doing schoolwork at home has just been terrible, horrible, hectic and extremely unorganized,” Jamerson said. “There’s so much difficult work in such large quantities that all us students have time to do is just find the answers. There is not enough time or help to learn the topics properly so we can actually understand what we are learning. This is going to be detrimental to us in the future.”

The majority of those who came before the board or wrote letters in favor of continued virtual learning were teachers at BCPS, including Brittany Dalton, who read to the board a letter signed by employees of the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex.

“At this time, we do not feel it is safe to bring students back in on a hybrid model,” educators wrote in the letter. “…If the students were to come back during the second nine weeks, we feel it would jeopardize their health and ours.”

Ethan Abruzzo read the board a similar letter signed by middle school teachers.

“We, the 32 undersigned staff of Buckingham Middle School respectfully submit the following concerns regarding the reopening of schools,” he read. “Time and training is needed for staff to correctly prepare to welcome students back to school. If school reopens in the hybrid model, teachers will have to be given time to plan for and grade the work of face-to-face students while having to clean, sanitize between classes as well as time to plan and grade virtual models for hybrid students and completely virtual students, some of whom do not have internet.

“Many teachers are working 10-12 hours a day at this time, and we feel it physically impossible for teachers to add an increased workload while maintaining our high educational standards.”

Piedmont Health District Director Dr. H. Robert Nash came before the board during Monday night’s meeting to discuss the county’s current standings in relation to virus mitigation and to answer questions regarding COVID-19 and the future.

Data presented by Nash at the meeting appeared promising, with Buckingham County showing 11 new cases, or 0.785 per day, between Sept. 14 and Sept. 28, and with no cases in this time period found in pediatric/school-age children.

“Want my opinion? I feel good about Buckingham County,” Nash said. “I feel good about every county in the Piedmont District.”

Before the vote Monday night, BCPS Superintendent Dr. Daisy Hicks highlighted the work done by the school board and the district’s COVID-19 task force in order to study the virus and weigh the pros and cons of considering returning to in-person learning.

“Buckingham County Schools as well as every school division has the goal of providing in-person instruction for five days a week as soon as we possibly can.” Hicks said. “Until then, critical decisions must be made by instructional leaders and school boards for virtual learning or hybrid learning. These decisions are not made lightly. There are serious concerns to consider regarding the safety and wellbeing of students and staff as well as the desire to have our students back in our schools.”

Board Vice Chairman and District 6 Representative Thomas Hutcherson Jr. made the motion to continue virtual learning for the remainder of the semester. The motion was seconded by District 3 Representative Pamela Morris.

District 5 Representative Joii Goodman followed the motion with a question to Hutcherson as to what proof the school district had that the current virtual learning method is successful and what the plan would be going forward.

Hutcherson said Nash’s statement of “I feel good about Buckingham” instilled in him confidence that the school’s current operations were working.

“When he said that it told me right then and there that what we’re doing, we’re doing good at it. That’s why I made the motion I made,” Hutcherson commented.

District 1 Representative Jacqueline Newton, Hutcherson and Morris voted yes to the motion. District 7 Representative and Board Chair Theresa Bryant, Goodman and District 2 Representative Rachel Castello-Dunn voted no. District 5 Representative Sherry Ragland, who would have been the deciding vote, was not present at Monday night’s meeting.