Wayne County’s school reopening plans may change next week.
Meeting Tuesday night, the Board of Education unanimously approved a called meeting for 11 a.m. next Tuesday to review new options that school officials will be preparing in the meantime.
Board member Joe McPipkin, who proposed the called meeting, suggested, at a minimum, delaying the start of school by one or two weeks.
If teachers still report for preplanning Aug. 3 (a week ahead of the currently scheduled start of classes), they will have time to become more proficient in distance-learning technology so that the school system will have more virtual-school options, McPipkin explained.
He went so far as to note that he was open to “total virtual learning.”
“Things have changed drastically in one week,” he said, noting a sharp jump in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wayne County.
McPipkin’s proposal came at the end of a sometimes-heated discussion which attracted an estimated 17 members of the public with concerns about the school reopening plan. A half-dozen of those spoke out, raising concerns about the health of both the children and other family members who might contract COVID-19 from them.
The current plan calls for in-person classes to start for all students other than those in vulnerable populations (for example, with certain chronic conditions) Aug. 10. The plan sets out a wide variety of safety precautions, and distance learning would be an option for individuals, groups or the student body as a whole, depending on how much the virus spreads in the school system.
Rico Curtis, though, still feared that that school system would be come a “petri dish” for students.
Jay Freeman, while acknowledging that younger people tend to handle the coronavirus better than older people, warned that long-term effects can include scarring of lung tissue.
And while commending the Board for the thought put into the reopening plan, Arthur Stone pointed out that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for determining vulnerable populations had changed even since the plan was released.
Jason Powell encouraged officials to communicate more effectively with stakeholders, from parents to taxpayers, and to gather input from diverse community groups, from religious institutions to businesses.
“We’re not afraid to change what we’re doing,” Brinson said.
Yet, while granting that the number of local cases has jumped in recent days, Brinson pointed out that much of that increase can be traced to inmates at the federal prison here. Also, the death rate from COVID-19 has dropped substantially statewide, he pointed out.
He added that at least starting traditional school will allow parent contacts to be updated so that the school system would be better prepared to implement distance learning.
Board member Sheron Daniel, though, spoke long and stridently about her opposition to reopening as planned.
“I don’t feel comfortable with going forward with this,” she said, later adding, “We’re the mockery and the laughing stock of the state of Georgia.”
In particular, she took exception to the fact that the school system is allowing masks but not requiring them.
She also supported allowing a general distance-learning option. She pointed out that, the fewer the students who actually come to school, the easier it will be to allow social distancing.
“We’ve got to think outside the box,” she said, complaining that her concerns were “totally dismissed” when the plan was discussed two weeks ago.
Board member Ray Davidson, though, pointed out that local pediatricians are recommending that students go back to school.
“When we get into a situation, we rely on experts to give us their opinion,” he said.
Asking that people “work together” on the issue, Davidson said, “If we don’t go to school, there are consequences for that as well.”
The risks of not reopening schools range from increased sexual abuse of children to lack of nutrition, he said.
Board member Bruce Harris distinguished between his personal opinion and his obligation to represent his constituents.
Harris said that his personal opinion is that “we need … to have school,” and he said that he sees no reason to delay the start of school because he expects a “spike” in COVID-19 cases whenever school starts.
He acknowledged, though, that he has been hearing from constituents with different opinions.
“I don’t disagree with giving us some time to figure these things out,” he said, adding, “We’ve got to listen to people.”
Summing up the challenge, Board Chair Nick Ellis said, “Out of 181 school systems [in Georgia], every one is doing something different.”
Also at the meeting, the Board voted unanimously to provide free lunches to high school and middle school students.
Previously, free lunches were available only at the elementary school level. Breakfast was free at all schools.
According to school nutrition director Rindy Trapnell, the financial profile of the community appears to qualify the school system for enough aid that free lunches systemwide will be feasible.