Although there was no public comment period on the agenda, Waynesboro parents made their concerns heard following Wednesday’s school board meeting.
About 60 audience members were in attendance at the special meeting called to further discuss school reopening for the 2020-2021 school year. However, because the meeting was not advertised three days in advance, no public comment period could be held to be in compliance with Virginia open meeting laws.
After a roughly 20 minute public address from Waynesboro Superintendent Jeff Cassell, audience members were informed by school board chair Rick Wheeler there would be no comments heard. Wheeler encouraged those in attendance to call or email board members instead.
Ward C board member Debra Freeman-Belle said she’s working on a survey to send to families where questions can be submitted. The 45 most frequently asked questions will be addressed by administrative staff by video, she said.
One audience member yelled out, “You have all these parents out here that came out to speak to you all and we have to send an email?”
Freeman-Belle replied citing the three days notice requirement under Virginia law which “is not a decision anyone here makes.” Cassell added the school board sent no notice saying any public discussion would be held.
Before the meeting concluded, Wheeler told audience members if they had questions or concerns to find their school board representative after the meeting. Following the meeting’s adjournment, a handful of audience members yelled at school board members citing statistics and saying things like, “How many sick kids is enough?”
Chanda McGuffin, co-founder of RISE, organized a parent and teacher rally planned for Thursday. McGuffin said the special called meeting “was only done to stop my rally.” McGuffin said after the meeting she is still planning to hold the rally at 6 p.m. Thursday in front of city council chambers.
Wheeler said Wednesday’s meeting was not called in response to the rally, but because of an influx of letters from teachers and parents. He added that the purpose of the meeting wasn’t to exclude a public comment period, but rather to discuss the letters received.
When asked why the meeting wasn’t held later in the week to accommodate the three days notice rule, Wheeler said he’s not responsible for booking meetings.
The roughly 40 minute meeting consisted mainly of Cassell readdressing the school’s reopening plan that was adopted at the July 14 meeting.
Waynesboro schools reopening plan calls for the school year to start on Aug. 18 with two options for families — a hybrid model of two in-person days and three virtual or 100% online.
For families opting for the hybrid model, Mondays will be virtual instruction for all students. Students last names A through L will attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while last names M through Z will attend Wednesdays and Fridays.
Additionally, face coverings will be required when social distancing isn’t possible including while riding the bus. Classrooms will be set up with at least 6 feet of social distance, and health screenings, temperature checks and cleaning procedures will be in place.
Cassell said the factors in the decision to offer both a hybrid and 100% virtual model include childcare issues, wanting to pay staff and wanting to offer a safe place for students.
“The safety of our students it always our first concern and our number one priority,” Cassell said. “We have created the safest environment we can create for our students. For some of our students, they may be safer at home than at school. But for many of our students, school is the safest place.”
Cassell said some teachers have concerns about returning, while others are eagerly planning to return in person.
“All of our teachers are embracing the opportunity to teach kids,” he said. “Some are embracing that opportunity virtually. Others are not as confident teaching virtually, but they’re confident in their ability to teach students face-to-face in the building. I’m confident in all of our teachers whether they teach virtually or face-to-face.”
At the school board’s last meeting, three teachers spoke in favor of a 100% virtual option. Cassell said those three teachers don’t speak for all teachers, and several teachers have expressed to him that they want to return.
A survey indicated that most teachers plan to return to the building, Cassell noted, but administrators will work with concerned staff “on a case-by-case basis” about not returning in person.
Support staff including bus drivers, cafeteria staff and custodians would not be able to work virtually if the buildings were closed, Cassell added. While all professional and support staff were paid through June despite schools closing down in March, that may not be the case under a 100% virtual model because it “would be difficult to defend paying 200 employees who don’t have a job to do.”
In addition, Cassell said there “simply is not enough childcare” if schools don’t reopen.
In the latest survey sent to families, 72% chose the hybrid model while the remaining 28% chose virtual.
“For the reasons I have just given you, I do not recommend a 100% virtual model. The model that we currently have allows choices for our families and students,” he said. “Families who have health concerns can chose the virtual model and students who are comfortable sending there students to school can do so.”
Although many other school divisions are requiring parents to commit to one model, Cassell said he has no plans to lock parents in to one or the other. He said this allows parents to decide when they’re comfortable returning. On the other hand, parents are able to go 100% virtual at any time.
In the event of a positive COVID-19 in the school system, whether a teacher or student, Cassell said protocols are in place from the Virginia Department of Health.
Some parents oppose Waynesboro offering any in-person classes during the pandemic.
“It doesn’t make sense. You only have a plan for two days out of the week. Those other three days of the week, they’re unoccupied,” said Dewan Bellamy, whose fiance has four kids in Waynesboro public schools. “This shouldn’t just be about Waynesboro. They need to go to the state and say, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ The whole time [Cassell] is talking about kids safety being his priority, but the whole time he had no mask on.”