After more than an hour of discussion about delaying the start of students returning to school until after Labor Day, the Warren County Board of Education voted Thursday night to continue with an Aug. 12 start date.
School Board member James Bennett pushed for having students return to school about three weeks later, after Labor Day. Instruction would have still begun Aug. 12 under Bennett’s proposed plan, but it would be online, remote learning until early September.
“Due to the emails I’ve received and the tremendous concern about going back, I make a motion we put off school till after Labor Day and go to remote learning,” said Bennett, who stressed he worries about a child or teacher getting sick and dying. “It’s too much risk. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience and I know no one on this board would either.”
Bennett would later say, “Our community is scared. If somebody brings it in, it will spread to three people.”
Bennett tabled his motion for a roundtable discussion on the matter. School Board members heard recommendations from healthcare professionals in attendance, including Sonja Walker with the school system’s Health Services Department, local physician Dr. Bryan Chastain, and Health Department representative Pat Williams.
Walker told School Board members the school system is “100% ready” to return to physical classrooms. However, she added that she would expect the COVID numbers to rise, which is the case with any illness when students return to school.
School Board member Teddy Jones acknowledged that many people are eager to return to school, but he’s also heard concerns expressed about the safety of children and teachers. School Board member Bill Zechman said he is sympathetic with the request from Bennett to delay the start of instruction in classrooms.
“The problem is we’re still on the wrong side of the mountain,” said Zechman. “COVID is still growing in Warren County.”
Jones asked what would happen to teachers who can’t come to work due to illness.
Director of Schools Grant Swallows said, “No one is going to lose their job because they get sick.”
School Board member Helen Martin asked about the possibility of having students sign a waiver in case of illness.
School system attorney Robin Phillips said that might work better with extracurricular activities, which are optional. She said coming to school is not optional.
“The voluntary nature of that is suspect,” said Phillips.
Swallows admitted he is eager to get students back in classrooms as soon as possible because he wants learning to return at its maximum capacity. As a father of three school-age children, he said he understands concerns, but thinks returning to school is the best option.
When asked point blank their opinions, two healthcare professionals said school should resume in classrooms.
“I’ll give you my opinion,” said Dr. Chastain. “I think kids have to go back to school.”
Added Williams, “It’s hard mentally on children and I think they should go back.”
Bennett again made the motion to go to school 100% remotely until after Labor Day and then start the phase-in process. His motion failed 5-1. Bennett voted for it, but the other School Board members, Zechman, Jones, Martin, Tanya Bess and Sue Anderson, voted against it.