A 7-2 vote by the Pitt County Board of Education to suspend in-person classes for two weeks came after more than an hour of strong public input about the school system’s coronavirus measures.
Monday night’s decision also followed weekend announcements that two elementary schools would be closed for face-to-face instruction this week due to reported COVID-19 cases and quarantines. The suspension will continue at least until Jan. 22.
Across the district, Superintendent Ethan Lenker said 267 staff members and 983 students were under quarantine as of Friday. “What we had to do at Eastern and Ridgewood, looking at the rest of numbers, that’s not going to be the end,” he said.
The vote reversed a decision to start the spring semester in person last week. District 9 representative Benjie Forrest and District 6 representative Worth Forbes, who have consistently opposed moves to return to all-virtual instruction, were the dissenting votes.
Pitt County Schools Public Information Officer Jennifer Johnson said Tuesday that teachers would continue to report to campus, where they will lead virtual instruction for students learning from home.
Lenker said high school sports are expected to continue. Athletics Director Ron Butler said Tuesday that middle schools would not participate in winter sports of basketball and wrestling this year but were planning for baseball, softball and soccer in the spring.
The meeting drew more than 2,000 livestream views and by Tuesday had been viewed more than 8,000 times. Johnson read dozens of comments that were submitted in writing because members of the public were not allowed to attend due to COVID-19.
Many comments were critical of the board’s Jan. 5 vote against an all-virtual start, despite concerns that the school district would see an after-Christmas spike similar to the one it experienced following the Thanksgiving break.
“We must look at the statistics and the reality of the situation in front of us,” E.B. Aycock Middle School teacher Jonathan Redman wrote. “Pitt County’s positivity rate is 13.6 …. The previous threshold of 10 percent was passed a long time ago.”
Creekside Elementary School teacher Paula Mitra agreed that the board’s decisions should be driven by data.
“Decide what the maximum number of positive COVID-19 cases or the highest rate of infection in the community that there can be and still have students in school safely,” she wrote. “If these guidelines are in place, then the school board won’t have to hold contentious debates during the school board meetings.”
Several comments challenged the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which provides updates on new school-affected cases but does not specify whether new cases involve students or staff members. The district’s weekly report also does not include information about quarantines or a listing of schools where cases have been reported.
“The type of information that is currently being reported is sorely lacking and compounding the frustration, anger and confusion of all stake-holders,” parent Tom Morse wrote. “While the ‘School-Affected Cases’ is interesting, it’s not a clear indicator of the impact of COVID on student learning, teacher availability, number of teachers and students quarantining, impact on substitutes, strain on bus drivers, etc. The term SAC is misleading because it implies that the system as a whole is only impacted by that statistic. Those who understand the definition of SAC (including yourselves) know that’s not the case.”
Morse, whose wife is a Pitt County Schools teacher, was among several writers who asked the district to adopt a more comprehensive reporting system similar to one used in Johnston County.
Parent Amber Reel made a more emotional appeal.
“I do agree that face-to-face is the best way to utilize instructional time. I also agree that the health of staff and students is important,” she wrote. “I’ve said this hundreds of times, ‘I’d rather have dumb kids that are alive than smart ones who have died.’”
Reel, who said she has suffered a loss due to COVID-19, criticized the board for failing at its last meeting to mention by name Richard Montoya, a band and orchestra teacher at Wellcome Middle and North Pitt High School, who died in June from COVID-19.
Since the Jan. 5 meeting, board members have been criticized on social media for being uncaring because none could immediately recall the name of a school staff member who succumbed to the virus. Following a moment of silence at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Forrest led a prayer that mentioned Montoya as well as Thelma Perkins, a bus monitor, who died from COVID-19 in October.
Montoya’s former co-worker, Jennifer Krajna, expressed a similar sentiment to Reel’s.
“Let’s hope the next time one of our teachers dies, their name will be remembered,” she wrote.
Krajna’s letter said teachers are being undermined and left out of decision-making.
“Does the board not realize we are scared? We are mentally tired and have had to deal with so much change lately that it is becoming harder and harder to do our job when we are trying to get our own basic needs met,” she wrote. “When is enough enough?”
Some writers thanked the board for its previous efforts to preserve face-to-face instruction and asked them to continue to allow students to attend classes on campus.
Nancy Keith said her daughter was scheduled this week to have her first face-to-face day since March.
“She is on pins and needles that she will not get to go,” she wrote. “As a working parent and essential worker who has remained working through the entire pandemic, I feel that face-to-face instruction is best suited for our children.”
Parent Megan Weaver told the board that her middle school child has to be left home to supervise her younger siblings because her parents work.
“It’s not working,” she wrote. “My children are failing.”
District 5 representative Anna Barrett Smith, who had proposed Jan. 5 that schools move to temporary all-virtual instruction, made a similar motion Monday. District 7 representative Caroline Doherty offered a second to Smith’s motion.
Forrest asked if the school district’s hourly employees would be affected by the decision. Lenker said the district has money in its budget to continue to pay those workers during two weeks of virtual instruction.
Doherty said she had received hundreds of emails, calls and text messages from parents offering suggestions for how school should proceed during a pandemic and that she understands their concerns and appreciates their input.
“Like most stakeholder opinions, they are widely varied both in their perspectives and recommendations,” she said. “(They) sometimes express polar opposite views using the exact same reasoning. This is pretty typical for our society.”
About 70 percent of the school district’s 23,000 students enrolled in November to attend class in person during the second semester. While school officials said earlier that virtual enrollment would be a semester-long commitment, Lenker said last week that the district will give virtual students another chance to return to classes during the semester if COVID-19 cases decline.
On Jan. 5, the district indicated that families of in-person students could temporarily opt for virtual learning until Jan. 15, but that deadline has been extended through the end of the month.
Johnson said Tuesday that the district also expects to give families of full-time virtual students a mid-semester option for returning to face-to-face instruction.
In other business, the board voted unanimously:
To suspend for one year Pitt County Schools’ requirement that students have 28 credits for graduation. For the 2021 graduation class, the district will use the state standard of 22 credits. The superintendent said the decision should favorably affect about 215 seniors.
To divide an $11 million contract for construction and renovation of A.G. Cox Middle School into two separate parts due to a delay in available funding. The change will enable work on the two-year project to begin this month, with a second part of the project to begin after April 15. Group 3 Management of Kinston will serve as general contractor for the project.