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Residents tell Franklin County School Board to reopen schools
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Residents tell Franklin County School Board to reopen schools

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The Franklin County School Board heard pushback from parents and teachers who felt the system’s school reopening plan is overcautious during a public hearing Monday evening. For 50 minutes, speaker after speaker told the board that the county’s children need in-person instruction.

As the board discussed the challenge posed by a limited number of classrooms that will accommodate only 10 to 12 students at a time because of social distancing, the livestreamed proceedings were interrupted by audience members chanting, “Bring them back!”

Franklin County Schools Superintendent Mark Church said that everyone involved wants to bring students back, but it has to be done safely. However many students physically return to school, the system will be complying with state and federal guidelines, he said.

Church said the board had been hearing from teachers who were concerned about returning to class, and the public meeting Monday night gave them an opportunity to hear from both parents and teachers who were in favor of returning to school.

“The board got to hear from a different perspective who haven’t been as vocal,” he said. “More teachers and more parents want to go back.”

He added most have been in favor of the A/B schedule that was proposed, which he said he feels is the best scenario. Then as the semester unfolds, they can identify problems.

The board will revisit its plan to reopen schools with a new vote scheduled for Aug. 3.

On July 13, the school board unanimously adopted a plan that would have opened schools Aug. 10, with students in preschool through second grade and some special education students attending in person and all others starting out with remote learning. The plan conformed to Virginia’s Phase 2 guidelines for reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though Phase 3 guidelines were in place by then.

One week later, during a work session, the board dropped that plan, voting 5 to 3 to delay opening day until Sept. 8. Board members who supported the change said they had heard from teachers concerned that physically returning to school would be unsafe. During that session, the board announced plans to hold Monday’s public hearing for further feedback.

However, at Monday’s hearing, no one advocated for keeping schools closed and students home.

The overwhelming majority of county residents who came to the podium unequivocally rejected that idea, stumping for a range of possibilities from having students attend on alternating days to fully reopening as normal. Several emphasized requiring or encouraging students to wear face masks and providing them if necessary.

Samantha Strong, a Franklin County schools social worker, said that for some students, restricting them to virtual learning only guarantees that they fall behind. “The gap is only going to get bigger, and we will not recover from that,” she said.

Beyond classroom instruction, schools provide for the mental health of students, along with things such as food and hygiene items and medical screenings. “If we’re not in school, we cannot meet those needs.”

Stephanie Lovelace, president of the Franklin County Education Association, raised the issue of workers’ compensation and the idea that it might be difficult for teachers who test positive for COVID-19 to prove they contracted it at work. “What will this mean for our teachers? We all want to be back in the classroom.”

While teachers do have multiple concerns about safety, she said, “We all went them to come back to school.”

Many speakers implored the board, not to make their decision based on fear, but to examine data. One Franklin County High School teacher, Tammy Knick said not all teachers were afraid to return to the classroom. She added she feared a student bringing a gun to school more than she feared the coronavirus.

Glade Hill resident T.J. Agee said the data didn’t support keeping children out of school with less than 1% of area residents having tested positive for COVID-19 since March.

“As a parent, where is my option to send my children to school?” she asked, adding parents are being given the option to keep their children home.

Board member Arlet Greer again inquired about the idea of using different spaces such as local churches as a way to social distance students and get them back to in-person learning, but Church said the idea wasn’t feasible due to liability and insurance issues.

Editor Briana Barker contributed to this article.

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