After several comments from parents and students both in favor of and against the idea of in-person classes while Lee County is experiencing a record number of new COVID-19 cases, the Lee County Board of Education voted 4-3 Tuesday night to continue with Plan B (a hybrid of online and on campus classes) for elementary and middle school students and to revisit a change for high school students at its February meeting.
The vote fell along non-partisan lines as Democrats Patrick Kelly and Pat McCracken joined Republican Sherry Lynn Womack in voting “no” for Plan B. All three suggested during Tuesday’s meeting that Lee County should go fully remote for the time being until COVID cases recede. On Monday, the county reported nearly 400 new cases over the previous seven days and its 45th death since April. In all, more than 4,100 people in the county have tested positive for COVID-19, and the county is averaging 58 new cases per day with an 18.1 percent positivity rate for those getting tested.
“I came here tonight wanting to move students in another way because of the 18-percent [positivity rate],” Kelly said during the meeting. “It’s hard for me to not listen to CDC guidelines, which recommend [remote learning if numbers surpass] 10 percent.”
Kelly, who was among the first group of people to receive a vaccine because of his work with first responders, said he’s seen too much death in the county and has had to console too many people who’ve lost loved ones to vote otherwise.
“I can’t in good conscience say that staying in school is the best decision right now,” he said.
Womack said she had heard from too many teachers to believe Plan B is the right choice.
“Teachers have legitimate concerns over returning to school,” she said. “It’s tough for everyone, but we need some type of written order that tells us exactly what we’re going to do. It just seems like we’re being very inconsistent right now.”
Board members Dr. Lynn Smith, Christine Hilliard and Pam Sutton voted to continue with Plan B, and board chairman Sandra Bowen made the tie-breaking vote to continue with the plan and revisit all levels of K-12 education in early February.
“Hopefully, the current spike will be in decline, and if we’re in a good place to continue a slow rollout for a Plan B for high school students, that might be a feasible option,” Bowen said.
The board received dozens of public comments from parents and students read by Superintendent Andy Bryan before the discussion. Most of the comments asked the school board to consider sticking with remote learning for the safety of students, teachers and staff.
“I feel at this time for students to come back into school is definitely the wrong choice,” wrote Michael Jones, a teacher at Southern Lee High School. “If the students would come back to school, you must remember we are on the front lines. Our health and safety would be at risk during this pandemic. I have witnessed students in groups outside of school not practicing the 3W’s. My fear is that they are increasing the spread, which in turn they would bring back into the school. Not only would it be a risk for us as teachers and our families, but also for our students.”
“How much will we gamble with help so close?” wrote LCHS teacher and parent Dawn Bevier. “No harm has come to our schools yet, but ‘yet’ is a powerful word. It implies more to come. Our county is critical. …I love my students and my eighth-grade daughter. I love them more than my desire to have them learn Shakespeare. I love them more than high math grades. I want them alive and healthy, and when this is over, I’ll repair academic loss.”
Fourth grade teacher Scott Fann-Smith said he supports continued in-person classes for those whose children have trouble with online learning.
“My students who have chosen to come to school in person are thriving and performing dramatically better in person than they would if they were forced to learn online only,” he wrote. “I have had students who are virtual personally tell me when I am teaching that they are confused with a certain topic, and that they knew they would understand better when they came in person later on in the week. … Please at the very minimum allow the kids who have chosen to move from virtual learning to in person learning do so. We have the safety precautions in place, and it is our job to make sure that they are met while also meeting the needs of our children.”
The next meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for Feb. 9.