BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time in months since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the region, the Sullivan County Board of Education opened its monthly meeting to the public. The public had a lot to say.
At least 50 people showed up to the meeting, which was held in the gymnasium of Sullivan Central High School. Everyone appeared to be wearing the recommended masks, and attendees sat spaced out among the bleachers.
In a called virtual meeting on Aug. 7, the school board had voted to keep county schools on a virtual learning schedule through Aug. 21. Their plan as of that meeting would have Sullivan County’s schools open on Aug. 24, either in a hybrid (part-virtual, part-in-person) format or fully in person.
One by one at Thursday’s meeting, parents and educators made their way down to the microphone facing the board members — who were seated in a half-circle of tables set up on the basketball court — and shared their opinions about that decision.
For the most part, their opinions fell into two camps: The parents, along with one high school student who spoke, pleaded with the board to reopen the school buildings. The educators argued that it was unsafe to reopen them with so many COVID-19 cases in the community.
Ashley Todd, a working mother of four, told the school board that because she and her husband both work, her family is currently paying $500 a month for daycare. She said that cost could shoot up to nearly $1,400 a month if the YMCA’s Emergency Childcare program, where she is sending several of her children, runs out of funding.
“I don’t know that I can keep working like that,” Todd said. “With the [school reopening] survey expressing that nearly 50% of parents decided to [send their kids to school] in person, why is it that we have not returned to school?”
Ashley Cross, another mother who spoke, said that she’s been an essential worker during the pandemic. Trying to help her fifth grader and eighth grader with virtual school on top of that had turned her into “a nervous wreck,” she said.
“I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” she said into the microphone, her voice quavering. “That’s how working families feel like.”
Those who spoke in favor of reopening schools also argued that keeping children home and running school virtually would make many fall behind in their learning, particularly those who need special instruction or help focusing. They also stressed that it would put some kids at risk of child abuse, neglect or hunger and harm students’ mental health.
“I work with too many teenagers to count in your schools about suicide,” said Allison Lee, a counselor as well as a parent who argued for reopening schools. “I have talked them off the cliff.”
Meanwhile, the educators who spoke criticized the school board for considering backing away from its own reopening protocols, which call for reopening with lower community spread of the virus than Sullivan County is currently experiencing.
“Our community is sick of and sick with the virus. By the measures you adopted, it’s not safe to bring students back into the building,” said Jeremy McLaughlin, a physics teacher at Sullivan Central High School.
“The online course you have charted is working,” McLaughlin added. “It’s not ideal. But if you’d like an even worse scenario, bring the students back to school.”
Timothy Dale, who works at Indian Springs Elementary and is the president of Sullivan County’s Education Association, echoed McLaughlin.
Dale — who had collected a number of questions and concerns from other teachers — asked why the school board wasn’t sticking to its protocols for reopening. He also voiced concerns about whether schools would have enough cleaning supplies and enough manpower to do adequate cleaning, as well as students’ potential to bring COVID-19 home to family members.
“We’ve ... heard that children from age 10 and above can transmit the disease as good as adults,” Dale said. “They’ll spread that. They go home. About 30% of these kids probably live with their grandparents.”
As of 8:30 p.m., the meeting was still taking place.
The following morning, Michael Hughes, the school board's chairman, said that the school system is planning to switch to the hybrid learning model starting Aug. 24.
Hughes said that he feels strongly that the schools should reopen for the sake of the parents.
"I have a real soft spot for the parents. I hate the position they're in," he said during a Friday morning phone call. "I don't know what I'd do if I was a parent [with kids] that age."
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