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Board votes to not start school in person before January

Following a split vote last month on a hybrid plan to return division students to in-person learning in Suffolk, the full board voted to delay having them back at school until at least January.

The board, at its Nov. 12 meeting, voted 6-1 in favor of not having most students return to school before Jan. 4. Sherri Story was the lone no vote.

Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, who made the motion to delay having students return to school, said the city’s children are her priority and noted she has heard from concerned teachers also.

“This is serious business, so I don’t want us to rush into something,” Brooks-Buck said, “and nobody is going to push me into rushing into something that I don’t feel comfortable with. I’m going to go with the science and safety and that’s where it’s going to be.”

Following the vote, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said he would propose that pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students return to school Jan. 4, and students in grades 6 through 12 return Jan. 11.

Students who have chosen to return to in-person learning would be divided into two groups, with one group going to school in person on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other group going on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The remaining days would remain virtual learning days.

Students in the College and Career Academy at Pruden program would return to school on Jan. 11, spending one day per week at their home school and two days per week at CCAP.

Gordon and his administrative team first presented its return-to-school plan, Educate and Innovate, at the board’s Oct. 4 meeting.

At that time, the board deferred a vote on the proposal until a special meeting Oct. 23, at which time the board voted 3-3 on the division’s plan to have pre-K through fifth-grade students return to school twice per week Nov. 16 and students in grades 6 through 12 returning Nov. 30, the day after the Thanksgiving break.

Story was absent from the Oct. 23 meeting due to a family emergency. Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, David Mitnick and Lorita Mayo voted at that time to have students return to school, while Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, Tyron Riddick and Karen Jenkins voted against having students come back.

Some special education students currently attend 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.

The board had to take a second vote on the division’s return-to-school plan because of a tie vote. Its policy manual states that “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.”

That led to the first of two votes Thursday on a back-to-school plan by the division. The board first had to vote again on the plan the division presented at the Oct. 23 meeting.

Prior to the vote, Gordon recommended that the board vote no on that plan because it would only give the school division four days in which to prepare. That vote was also 6-1, but against the division’s plan to return students early.

The three who had supported the division’s hybrid plan in the Oct. 23 vote — Byrum, Mitnick and Mayo — all voted no to the same plan Thursday, citing updated COVID-19 metrics that showed an increase over the past two weeks in the 7-day average COVID-19 case incidence rate above 10 per 100,000 people in the Eastern Region and in the city. Though seven-day positivity rates had increased slightly in both the region and city, they fell within the division’s guidelines to consider hybrid learning or a return to a normal, pre-pandemic schedule.

Mitnick said he didn’t favor starting school before Jan. 4, and added that his preference would have been for there to be no in-person learning until after the end of the first semester on Jan. 29.

“With the upswing in the number of COVID cases, it’s very dangerous at this point in time,” Mitnick said, “and for us to start school the day after Thanksgiving vacation, and for our high school and middle school students to start the day after Christmas, winter break, we don’t know where those kids have been on those breaks, and what they might be bringing back into our buildings. I just think that at this point in time, it’s too risky.”

Story said she preferred to have students in school, and noted that a majority of parents indicated their preference to have their students return to school. The parent survey results indicated that 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.

“I think we should be going back, and I think we should have the plan,” Story said as she voted. “The majority of parents want that option, and I think we should be giving them that option. It’s come up before the board twice. All the other schools are figuring out how to make it work. I think this is disappointing.”

Gordon said following the votes Thursday that the division would not start Jan. 4 for elementary students if any of the COVID-19 health metrics are in the red — meaning the Eastern Region or Suffolk has a seven-day positivity rate of greater than 10% or a seven-day average COVID-19 case incidence rate of more than 10 per 100,000.

For the past two weeks, the seven-day average case incidence rate has been in the red for both the region and city, but the seven-day positivity rate has been in yellow for the city, and in yellow and orange for the region.

If the metrics allow for reopening school, Gordon said the division’s plan will be for the Jan. 4 and Jan. 11 start dates for elementary and secondary students, respectively.

Gordon said the division chose Jan. 11 because during the following week, there is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, “so it’s a broken week (and) I do not want to start during a broken week.” He also said the division would like to have secondary students back in school because the first window for Standards of Learning testing closes Feb. 16, “and we have to be able to be in school to probably have the best way to get our students to take those tests.”

Gordon said he had a conversation with State Superintendent for Public Instruction Dr. James Lane last week on whether all school divisions would get either an extension or a waiver on that round of SOL testing since there are school divisions that are still in virtual learning. He said it is possible, but not definite, that the close date of Feb. 16 could be extended.