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Parents, teachers express concerns about fall learning

Before and after the Suffolk School Board’s vote in favor of virtual learning to start the first nine weeks of the upcoming school year, parents and teachers shared concerns with various aspects of the school division’s fall reopening plan.

Major concerns included lack of broadband connectivity and time to help children with virtual learning. That is the case for Sean McGee, a father of four from Whaleyville. He said the Kajeet devices the school division provides do not work and with satellite internet access, it is not much help for his children.

“I have four kids right now that this will not work for,” said McGee during the Aug. 6 board meeting. “I work full time, my wife works full time. You talk about opening these facilities to come in the evening, by the time I get off work and I’m coming at 5 o’clock, what am I supposed to? When will my kids have face-to face time with their teachers, live-action, everything that was rolled out? It sounds great, but it will not work for folks like myself and others in my neighborhood. We do not have internet access. We have got to look at another option for us.”

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III has said the Kajeet mobile devices to be rolled out to students this fall will be more numerous — more than double what was available in the spring — and also have unlimited data on them. Gordon also said in a Facebook Live chat that the division is planning on using resource access centers to provide help for students who have trouble with broadband.

Armaris Narvaez said that with both she and her husband active duty military, they would not be able to help their children during the day with virtual learning.

Narvaez has two children — a 9-year-old fourth-grader and a 5-year-old starting kindergarten this year. She said the fall reopening plan “did not take my children into consideration.” Based on this proposal, Narvaez said her children would be online and doing their school work from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m.

“I understand that we are in uncharted territory, I get it,” Narvaez said. “And that you came up with what you thought was the best plan. But my question is, the best plan for who? I cannot fathom that a group of smart individuals sat down and thought this was the best for all the children in Suffolk (Public) Schools. I cannot comprehend that when you were having your talks, you thought about the working parents of this (city).”

Gordon, in his Facebook Live, reiterated from the board meeting that while his hope is that students will be able to go along with the schedule given to them, he understands that outside factors, such as a family’s work situation, may prevent them from being online at the same time the lesson is given. That is why, he said, every lesson would be video recorded, and that it would stay in Canvas for two weeks. Students will also have the opportunity to connect with their teacher to ensure they don’t fall behind.

Danielle Hare, in a letter to the board, said she was concerned that her two middle school-age daughters would regress under virtual learning.

Teacher Andrew Pancoast also said he did not support forcing teachers to come into their buildings to do their virtual teaching.

“If the building isn’t safe enough for students, how is it safe for the teachers,” Pancoast said. “What about teachers and their health problems?”

Kristin Parker said that while she agreed with the need to start virtually, she, too, did not like that teachers were being required to come to school four days per week, per the division’s plan before it was amended.

Said Kristin Parker in a letter to the board: “I wholeheartedly agree that we need to start virtually. But there are several points to this plan that still put teachers and students’ well-being at risk.”

The board opted to reduce the number of days teachers are required to be in the classroom for virtual learning, only having to be in buildings twice per week, with the other three days per week optional.

“Based on Dr. Gordon’s comments about a lack of teacher communication from the spring being a reason why all of us need to come in, that’s pretty disrespectful to the vast majority of us who had better communication than some of us have ever had with parents.”

Gordon told the board at the Aug. 6 meeting that staff would have better access to resources and broadband at school while providing a separation of home and work life. It would also allow administrators to monitor and observe instruction and feedback better, while curbing the practice by several staff members of working other jobs from home during contract hours. He noted that parent feedback on the Virtual SPS model that was used in the spring was that there was a lack of engagement by some of the division’s instructional staff.

Amber Feliciano said that with five school-age children, including two with special needs, she wants her children in schools this fall. She said disadvantages of special-needs children is harmful for their future.

“I strongly disagree with their ability to learn virtually,” Feliciano said. “My experience with virtual learning for my boys since March is not one I would like to continue with,” Feliciano said.

The plan put forth by Gordon and division administrators had special education students coming to school four days per week. However, after concerns by some board members about that, they opted to have them be phased in instead.