Students wear masks in the hallway of Mary Persons High School.

Students wear masks in the hallway of Mary Persons High School.

Editor’s note: A brief story about the Monroe County school board’s 4-3 vote not to resume regular in person instruction for grades 6-12 appeared in last week’s Reporter. The vote happened as we went to press. Here’s a fuller report of what happened:

 “You can tear my thing up. I’ve heard enough,” said Robert Tungett, as he got up and left after sitting through half of a three-hour school board meeting on Feb. 9. 

Tungett had competed an application to speak to the board during “Public Comment” about the A-B schedule at the high school and middle school, which has students who have chosen to attend classes in person only able to be in class face-to-face two days per week. The student body is divided alphabetically with half in the buildings Monday-Tuesday, half on Thursday-Friday and Wednesday used as a cleaning day.

Tungett had listened to two AP (Advanced Placement) teachers at Mary Persons explain the challenges of the A-B schedule and listened to an appeal by two board members to end the A-B schedule and bring all students back on campus after Winter Break on Feb. 18.

Tungett stood and made his comment after the motion to bring all students who elected face-to-face classes back to the buildings five days per week was defeated 4-3 by a tie-breaking telephone vote from board member J.P. Evans. Evans’ vote came after he acknowledged that he hadn’t been able to hear all the discussion before the vote and wasn’t sure whether to vote yes or no on the motion to express his decision correctly.

The discussion about ending the A-B schedule for grades 6-12 followed a report from Monroe County Schools safety director Patricia Napier including the decreasing new COVID-19 cases in the community and among students and staff. 

Board member Stuart Pippin said that with the board having made masks mandatory and with the numbers of new cases decreasing the board should consider an earlier return to five days per week in person. He said new cases are the lowest since October and the national CDC (Center for Disease Control) has stated that schools aren’t where the spread is originating. 

“Are we really through with the last surge?” asked Superintendent Dr. Mike Hickman. “When the trajectory is good, we don’t want to do something to change it. It comes in waves. It actually follows when we’re not in school.”

Hickman speculated that the Super Bowl of the preceding weekend might cause a spike. He said teachers and administrators “have to have a little time to change gears” before going back to five days so he thought that March 15 would be a better date to transition. 

“We’ve gone from terrible to bad. We’re still at very high caseloads. Accurate predictors say one more surge,” said board member Dr. Jeremy Goodwin. “Everybody has a lot of pandemic fatigue. I think we’re doing the right thing.”

Hickman said the point of the A-B schedule is more to reduce having to quarantine students and staff because of possible exposure than it is to stop cases, which start in the community more than in school. He said parents are upset when they get a call their student has to quarantine because they were near someone in class who tested positive, especially when the student has had to quarantine multiple times, and it hurts many students when a teacher has to quarantine. 

Hickman asked Mary Persons principal Dr. Jim Finch how quickly the school could convert back to five days per week. Finch said it will take a little planning but Mary Persons will do whatever the school board directs.

Board member Greg Head said the board doesn’t need to wait until March 15 to decide. He said he has had a lot of calls from parents who abhor the A-B schedule and has heard comments from students saying the same. 

“There’s a lot of angst, falling behind and grades falling,” said Head. “We go out every day. Other systems are doing it. We’re being paid for a service, and we’re not delivering.”

He said the safety and health of children is their parents’ job. The school system has given parents a choice of virtual or face-to-face learning and it should provide the options it promised. 

Head made a motion to end the A-B schedule effective Feb. 18, and Eva Bilderback seconded the motion. Schools are closed for Presidents Day on Monday, Feb. 15, and Feb. 16 and 17 are holidays for students and planning days for teachers, which would give them time to plan the transition back from the A-B schedule.

Bilderback said she has also gotten calls from parents saying they want their children back in school five days per week. 

“If masks work, why aren’t we in school?” she asked.

Hickman answered that masks aren’t a silver bullet. Bilderback said there are studies that say COVID isn’t a serious concern for children. She said many students are failing to learn in on-line classes, especially when they have substitute teachers in the on-line classes. She said students feel like there’s no one at the other end when they’re in on-line classes. Bilderback said parents have told her they’ve heard a teacher say they would be taking the day off and not doing anything in class that day.

“Our staff is working hard,” said Hickman, and board chair Dr. Priscilla Doster told Bilderback that she was talking about an issue with an individual teacher and not something that should be addressed by the board. 

Head said that is the reason for his motion to get students back in school and provide the educational service for them the board is committed to provide. 

“We’ve had a campfire; we need to let it cool down,” said board member Nolen Howard. “Feb. 18 is not enough time. I understand what you’ve said about parents, but there’s parents on the other side. I’d err on the side of caution.”

“I didn’t understand,” said Evans by phone as Doster called for a vote on the motion. Doster began to recap some of the discussion for Evans, and Head noted that it was a point of order that the chair could only read the motion to a board member, not explain in any way that might influence a vote. Doster told Evans the motion was to go back to school after the break. Evans asked when that was, and Doster told him Feb. 18.

Head, Bilderback and Pippin voted in favor of the motion. Doster, Howard and Goodwin voted against the motion, creating a 3-3 tie. Doster then asked Evans for his vote.

“I go with the majority,” said Evans.

“It’s 3-3,” said Doster. Evans’ vote wasn’t audible in the auditorium, but Doster said, “It doesn’t carry.”