Board votes five-day instruction for secondary students beginning Nov. 9

Suzette Lowe
Ripley High School teacher, Barbara Heckert, told the board that she supported five-day attendance when school started, but no longer felt it was safe.

Facing a vote on the third change to the re-entry plan at its Oct. 21 meeting, the Jackson County Board of Education said “no more.”

After a meeting lasting more than two hours, the board voted to have middle and high school students attend school five days a week beginning Nov. 9. Elementary schools will see five-day instruction begin Oct. 26.

The motion made by board president Bobbi Ferrell also included the caveat that the issue will not appear on future board agendas. Any decision regarding schools and COVID-19 will be made by Superintendent of Schools Blaine Hess in coordination with the Jackson County Health Department.

“We are not qualified to monitor community health,” Ferrell said. “It’s our job to solidify the re-entry plan, then step back and let Mr. Hess work with the health department.”

The motion passed with a 4-1 vote. Members Ben Mize, Dan Barnette, Jim Frazier, and Ferrell voted in favor, with Steve Chancey voting against.

The date chosen for secondary schools to begin full-time in-person instruction came at the recommendation of Superintendent Hess.

“It’s my belief that we need to give a minimum of two weeks after elementary starts before we send all the secondary students,” Hess said. “That would be Nov. 9.”

The vote came at the end of a lengthy public forum which saw 15 speakers address the board. All but two were teachers.

Many of those speaking addressed the issue of social distancing when all students attend five days.

“It simply will not be possible,” Ripley Elementary School teacher Stephanie Lakten said. “In my school, at lunch, we’ll be seating kids three feet apart on both sides of the tables.”

The quality of education was a concern expressed by board members.

“Not only are many of our students falling behind, they are hurting mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Frazier said. “I can safely say that 90 percent of the parents want their children in school full-time.”

Teachers countered this concern by saying the quality of education students were getting on the 2-1-2 model was good. Several said that while the learning curve for both teachers and students was steep at the beginning, everything was beginning to run smoother.

“I’m finding myself being more focused, coming up with more creative assignments,” Ripley High teacher Christina Iman said. “And my students have begun saying that they are budgeting time and becoming more independent.”

Iman went on to say that having her theater students unable to perform a play was causing harm.

“My kids don’t understand why football and wrestling can go on, but they can’t be in a play,” she said. “If there are health standards to follow, then follow them across the board.”

One other issue that concerned teachers was the lack of substitutes.

“Those who have substituted on the 2-1-2 model are telling us that if we go back to five days, they will no longer be willing to come,” Adena Barnette, President of the Jackson County Education Association informed the board.

Quarantining is one issue upon which both teachers and the board agreed.

“That’s honestly my biggest concern,” Ferrell said. “We’ve got to come up with a plan for that.”

Jackson County Health Department Administrator Amy Haskins, contacted by phone during the meeting, said quarantining will increase. She also pointed out that COVID case origins are not being tracked to the county schools.

“We are finding that the virus was contracted outside the school setting, not coming from the schools themselves,” she said. “Even if wearing masks, those within six feet of a positive case during a 15-minute sustained time period will be quarantined. This is part of the contact tracing that is conducted. We will make any school cases our top priority.”

The number of current cases in Jackson County schools is low reported Hess.

“At this time, we only have two cases,” he said. “Neither of those are students, and the proper steps are being taken by the school system and the health department.”

Two Ravenswood High teachers, John Houben and Brent Jones pointed to the data that showed that Jackson County remains in the yellow or gold designation on the state metric map.

“The best way to get to five days is to wait till the infection rate goes down,” Jones said.

Houben added that “when data is available, that’s what leaders need to look at to make the correct decision.”

Ultimately for the board, the result came down to consistency and the need to enable students to have full access to education.

“We’ve got to stop this,” Chancey said. “Every time the board meets, teachers and parents wonder what in the world we’re going to do next. I truly feel teachers are doing everything they can but there is still a disconnect. These students need to be in the classroom. I’ve said that five days is where we should have been from day one.”

Several teachers stated that they didn’t feel safe or valued.

“Who will stand up for teachers?,” questioned Tonya Cole, president of the Jackson County American Federation of Teachers. “We’re in the trenches. In fact, this is the last board meeting we will attend because this setting doesn’t even follow social distancing protocols.”

Virtual school is another consideration. Over 600 students are enrolled in that program, but Hess said many students are struggling and failing to do the work required. Parents are requesting that their children be allowed to come back to traditional classes.

Initially, the policy was for those who had not opted out of virtual school by Sept. 30 must stay until the end of the semester. That policy is also being reconsidered.

For board members, the final decision came down to educational concerns and faith in the superintendent and health department.

“This decision does not come lightly,” Ferrell said. “For anyone to think that we don’t care about the safety of our teachers and students is disheartening. But we must educate our children and they’re getting farther behind. We trust Mr. Hess and our health department to monitor the situation.”

The next regular meeting of the board will be at 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 at the administration building.

Emily Okes moves the podium as close to board member Steve Chancey to show how close she will be to her high school students with full capacity.