School Reopening Decision Draws Fire

Parents Express Frustration To Lexington Board

On the second day of virtual instruction, Lexington residents expressed disappointment in the city School Board for its decision to keep students at home for the first nine weeks.

“By now I hope you understand the severity of your mistake,” Patrick Rhamey said to the Board via Zoom last Wednesday. Rhamey and a number of others tuned into the virtual meeting to express their disappointment with the 100 percent virtual plan for the division.

“[You must] hold the superintendent accountable for her failure in leadership,” Rhamey said of the administration’s push for the switch.

Many concerned parents first approached Lexington City Council early this month with similar statements of frustration about the Board’s decision. Residents were not given the opportunity to speak as part of a public comment portion of the special called meeting by the School Board Aug. 24. During that virtual meeting, the School Board made the decision for the division to go totally virtual only a week before students were set to return with a modified, mostly in-person schedule.

Superintendent Rebecca Walters and the Board had previously expressed confidence in the original in-person reopening plan at the Aug. 12 regular meeting, which followed one day after Rockbridge County decided to make the switch to a virtual reopening plan for the majority of students. The Lexington School Board decided at the time to stick with its reopening plan, which called for in-person instruction four days per week from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and virtual instruction on the “off” day. The early end to weekdays was meant to allow time for virtual instruction for families who decided to keep their students home amid the pandemic. At that time, Lexington teachers had been back to work for a few days and anticipation of mostly in-person instruction was positive.

The opposite became true for teachers over the next weeks of preparation, Walters reported at the Aug 24 special meeting. By that time, teachers developed a number of concerns regarding both instruction and the spread of COVID-19. Walters explained the prospect of adequately teaching two sections of students in a day’s time, in-person and those that opted to learn virtually, became increasingly challenging with a rising number of students choosing to stay home. Unknowns about the virus also played into the decision, as faculty and staff grew concerned about rising case numbers in the area with the return of local universities.

The Board ultimately voted Aug. 24 to reopen with a virtual first nine weeks of school and planned to revisit its course of action for the second nine weeks at the regular meeting Oct. 14.

“Why do you expect numbers to be better in October?” Janice Friend asked the Board. Commenter Mary Beth Manjerovic added the Board needs to clarify and communicate with school families what the “baseline” expectation for community health will be for kids to go back to schools.

“Teachers have privately expressed horror at your decision,” Kate Rhamey commented.

A fourth-grader named Trey, 9, wrote the Board expressing his desire to get back into the school building. He wrote he had participated in camp over the summer with other kids and it was “not hard.”

“My friends are sad and stressed,” the student wrote. “My sister is sad because it is her first year of school.”

Parent Eric Koch also spoke to the Board about his family’s online education experience, describing some aspects as a “major fail.” He described the issue of paper worksheets for young students learning virtually. Without a printer at home, Koch explained, his student was asked to “follow along” on blank paper, creating disparities in the learning experience.

“This needs to be remedied,” Koch said.

“Many will grow to hate learning,” Katherine Masey said of virtual learning. Masey expressed worry to the Board about students’ emotional health in the wake of its decision and argued the Board’s action was made based on fear and anxiety.

Despite these criticisms, Superintendent Walters reported later in the meeting the first two days of virtual schooling saw many successes and “not too many” difficulties with only minimal technical issues experienced.

Principals from Waddell Elementary and Lylburn Downing Middle also weighed in virtually to report that students and teachers were excited to see one another, albeit through their screens.

“Overall it was a beautiful success,” Waddell Principal Melanie Camden said. “There was an overall feeling of pride.”

“We had every hope to open in-person,” Walters said, addressing virtual meeting attendees. “We recognize the time of the [Aug. 24] decision was less than ideal.”

The 100 percent virtual reopening plan, Walters added, is the safest plan for students and families.

“I apologize that we did not provide a sufficient recap of the months of deliberation that went into this decision,” Board Chair Timothy Diette before the start of the public comment portion of the Sept. 9 meeting. Diette added that looking back, he wished there was better communication from the Board to the public that virtual instruction was always a very real possibility for Lexington City Schools in crafting a plan for in-person learning.

He added the Board will be sure to include public comment at future special meetings, the next special meeting scheduled for Sept. 30 with Lexington City Council.

The News-Gazette

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