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School Board to vote again on reopening plan

Thanks to a little-used Suffolk School Board policy, there will be another vote on a reopening plan for the division’s schools.

The board will hold a vote at its regular Nov. 12 meeting on whether to have pre-K through fifth-grade students return to school twice per week Nov. 30, with students in middle and high school returning to school twice per week Jan. 4, according to Suffolk Public Schools’ Community Engagement Officer Anthonette Ward. The remaining days would still be virtual learning days.

The division presented its plan, Educate and Innovate, at two different board meetings in October, initially deferring a vote at its Oct. 8 meeting.

During a special meeting Oct. 23, the board voted 3-3, with member Sherri Story absent due to a family emergency, on the division’s plan to have students return to school twice per week beginning in November.

College and Career Academy at Pruden students would have also returned to school Nov. 30 — one day per week at their base school and twice per week at CCAP.

Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, David Mitnick and Lorita Mayo voted to have students return to school under the division’s hybrid plan, while Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, Tyron Riddick and Karen Jenkins voted against having students come back.

Byrum and Mayo, who each represent large rural areas that struggle with internet access, cited that as a reason for their votes. Brooks-Buck, Riddick and Jenkins spoke of their concerns with health and safety issues related to COVID-19 in voting to keep students in virtual learning.

Story had previously stated her support for providing parents with a choice on whether to have their children return to school.

Currently, some special education students are attending school in person twice per week, and there are children ages 4 to 12 in the AlphaBEST daycare program at each of the division’s 11 elementary schools.

Following the tied vote, board attorney Wendell Waller had said, “that it’s a tie, that means that the motion failed.”

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III told members after the vote not to expect anything about reopening schools again until its January meeting, with the earliest students could return to school would be after the end of the first semester Jan. 29.

However, because the board had an evenly split vote with one of its members absent, its policy manual indicated that it would have to hold another vote at its next meeting.

School Board Policy Chapter 2, Section 2-6.1B states, “In any case in which there shall be a tie vote of the School Board when all members are not present, the question shall be passed by until the next meeting.”

According to parent survey results, 8,892 of the division’s 13,800 students would be returning to school under a hybrid model, with the remaining 4,908 staying in virtual learning. About 69% of the 6,248 elementary students would return hybrid, while about 61% of middle school students would do so and about 61% of high school students would go back to school under the division’s hybrid plan.

Busing would also return to three tiers when the plan takes effect, with double-runs assigned to elementary schools as needed. During a presentation to the board at its Oct. 23 special meeting, administrators indicated that about 81% of returning students — 7,185 out of 8,892 — would need bus transportation, though the number of students needing such transportation is down from the 8,195 students that would have needed transportation following an August survey of parents.

At a separate November meeting, the Suffolk School Board will hold a public hearing on the possible renaming of Pioneer Elementary School at 6 p.m. Nov. 9 at City Hall.

Those wanting to speak at the public hearing can sign up on the sign-in sheet that will be available for people when they arrive. Speakers will be called to speak in the order in which their names are listed.

Board member Tyron Riddick brought up the subject during the board’s Oct. 8 meeting, saying that he had received a letter from some residents about possibly renaming Pioneer to Southwestern Elementary School.