After hearing concerns about COVID cases and costs of hiring needed staff members, Fairfield Area School District board members voted twice against reopening the elementary school for five-day per week instruction. The school is currently operating on a hybrid A/B schedule in which children only come to school two days per week.
“I think what we are missing here is that in the last five, maybe six weeks the elementary school has had a whopping six cases and they’ve shut down for six total days, most recently just being this Thursday, Friday and Monday,” said district nurse Kristi Ebaugh,
The major concerns about reopening included filling immediate personnel and material needs before the reopening date. The district would need to hire long-term substitutes to fill two kindergarten and fourth-grade teaching positions as well as aide, intervention specialist and custodial positions quickly enough to meet the reopening date the board might set. The schools would also need to purchase a UV light and 300 Plexiglass barriers before reopening.
Some board members also expressed concern at making the children go through yet another change involving school with only weeks left in the school year by the time everything falls into place.
Board member Lashay M. Kalathas made two motions for reopening the elementary school.
“It’s time that we get this job done,” Kalathas said. “It will be a struggle. It will be hard.”
For the first vote, Kalathas made a motion to reopen the school two weeks from Monday. The board had five ‘nays’ and four ‘yes’ votes.
Board President Marcy A. Van Metre, Vice President Jennifer I. Holz, Secretary Lauren K. Clark, and members David B. Millstein and Joshua D. Laird, voted against it. Board Treasurer Rhonda S. Myers and members Earl E. Shutt, Jack A. Liller and Kalathas voted for reopening.
In the second vote, Kalathas made the motion to reopen school four weeks from Monday.
Only Liller, Meyers and Kalathas voted for it.
The second motion was contingent upon contracting long-term subs as a kindergarten and a fourth-grade teacher, reading and math intervention specialists, custodians and classroom aides. The move to reopen was also contingent upon purchasing equipment including a UV light and Plexiglass shields within that time frame.
The meeting lasted just shy of three hours and board members expressed confusion or asked for clarification several times during the meeting.
In addition to the cost spreadsheets presented by Adamek, some representatives, including Patricia Weber, principal of Fairfield Area Middle School, Barbara Richwine, principal of Fairfield Area Elementary School, and Ebaugh also spoke.
Ebaugh said that she would do whatever was necessary to help, but wondered whether extra people in the building would force more closures, reducing the actual time gained in school.
“I think the bigger issue is here now we’re seeing more cases, and yes, we’re going to bring all these kids back, but is it really going to be for 10 weeks? Because now that we have more volume each day, are they now going to be out more frequently because of cases? How much are we gaining. I would love more than anything for my kids to be back in school, but I also don’t want to sacrifice the stability that they have to do so only for eight to 10 weeks,” Ebaugh said.
Weber and Richwine also noted that spring break and testing are coming up soon during that period.
Before the first vote, Holz said she thought the public might now be able to understand the board’s dilemma.
“So, what I think we’ve done a good job of here is painting the picture to the public as to what this actually looks like,” Holz said. “It’s taken us a really long time to get here, and that’s unfortunate, but there’s a lot of information that has come out due to the meetings over the last several days… But I’m hoping that the public is starting to understand what the inside of the school and the classroom will actually look like day-to-day, and how this train will run.”
While most of the board members said they needed more information, some felt that setting a date would force preparation and put a plan into action. Others felt the district would be under-prepared and face problems if the details weren’t ironed out before reopening.
Laird said the board needed more answers to make “an informed decision” before setting a firm reopening date.
With 10 weeks currently left in the school year, the second motion to reopen in four weeks would have only left six weeks for in-person instruction.
“So we’re going to pull kindergartners and fourth-graders out of their current class for the last six weeks of school?” Holz asked before the second vote. “This is half-baked, guys.”
When board members brought up the concern that this was all for only six weeks for the elementary school, Liller said, “If you want my answer, those kids are worth it.”
Some board members protested that his comment was unfair as they also agree that the kids are important but questioned the readiness of the plan from a business perspective and from the viewpoint of children seeing yet another significant change to their time at school.
Once the second vote failed, the board agreed to take the week to gather answers before voting again. Many board members had questions about logistics, including whether it would be possible to fill the needed positions so quickly.
The board will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to vote on whether to bring kindergarten through fourth-grade students back to school.
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.