Sycamore Park Elementary School

Sycamore Park Elementary School’s entrance appears deserted on March 20, days after Virginia closed public and private schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Culpeper County supervisor is urging that Culpeper public schools fully reopen this fall with all of their students in the classroom.

Tom Underwood, the governing board’s Salem District representative, believes that in-person, 5-days-per-week instruction is best for students’ learning and social development.

“It is possible to do that under the governor’s reopening guidelines, and it would be in the best interest of the Culpeper community,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “The budget we approved was based on that.”

If county schools don’t reopen all of their classrooms, Underwood proposes to cut funding for the division and, with the savings, compensate working parents for the extra costs they would bear for child care. He said he hopes that would not affect teacher pay.

With Culpeper schools having been out of session since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Underwood said he wants the school system to avoid doing “something disjointed and disruptive this fall.”

“If there is any way we can get to full, in-person instruction, that is better for the community,” he said.

The parents in many of Culpeper’s dual-income and commuting families can no longer stay at home and care for their children, as they could early in the pandemic’s reign, he said.

Underwood said he is “very worried” about such families’ financial burdens, and hopes a majority of his colleagues will support creating a fund to help those parents.

Plan yet to come

The School Board has yet to settle on the options it will consider for reopening this autumn. On Monday at 6 p.m., it will hold a work session in Floyd T. Binns Middle School’s gyn to learn the initial findings of its School Reopening Task Force. Composed of 45 individuals—teachers, school administrators and individusals from businesses, churches, parent groups and health-care professions, the task force held its first meeting last Monday to begin discussing the many issues involved in reopening amid the continuing pandemic.

In earlier conversations, school officials have indicated that public-health guidelines could require a hybrid mix of in-person teaching and online instruction.

Underwood said that such hybrid plans are meeting a lot of resistance. Speaking as a parent and an elected official, he said he wonders how switching back and forth between classroom and virtual teaching would be optimal for students, teachers or others.

Underwood said he wants a Board of Supervisors decision on fall funding of the schools by Sept. 2.

Under the COVID-19 schedule approved last month by the School Board, classes will begin Aug. 24, two weeks later than was planned pre-virus.

Many Culpeper teachers are worried about the risks posed by reopening in a different way than public health authorities have endorsed, said Allison Cline, president of the Culpeper County Education Association.

“The CCEA’s top priority is the health and safety of students, their families and communities, and the educators who serve in our schools,” Cline said Thursday via email. “We surveyed CCEA members, and many of them have concerns about safety. We are facing an unprecedented situation, and caution is warranted.”

The fourth-grade teacher noted that, currently, states which “rushed ahead of what health officials were advising” are seeing sharp increases in COVID-19 infections.

“We can’t afford to make that mistake,” Cline said. “We need to take the time to do it right, and stay healthy and safe for tomorrow.”

Staff members worry

School Board Chairwoman Michelle North said Underwood’s ideas, which he has shared via Facebook for the past month, worry some school staff members and their families who have contacted her.

“(They) are gravely concerned that county funding could be pulled, which would effectively close down our schools,” North said, stating this was her own opinion and she was not speaking for the board. “If we can’t meet payroll, we’re not going to have teachers. They won’t be in the classroom, whether that is blended or virtually, in front of computers. ... We will have no school.”

North said all educators share Underwood’s main concern that it’s best to have face-to-face instruction for all children every day, but when circumstances support it.

“We all agree on that,” she said. “However, we are not dealing with a normal environment. I don’t see how we can possibly heed the health and safety recommendations being put forth, even with the diminished 3-foot social-distancing recommendation that came out the other day.”

North was referring to updated state guidance from Va. Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver to all local school officials.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said students can be as close as 3 feet apart if they wear face masks and are not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms of the virus. Its recommendation, half the 6 feet suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could mean more students will be inside classrooms this fall.

Issue politicized

In Virginia and nationally, how to reopen schools has become a divisive topic. President Donald Trump is calling for schools to fully reopen, and threatened Wednesday to cut federal funding for districts that defy his demand to resume classes in person.

Some Virginia parents say an all-students in-classroom reopening could further spread the virus, which has killed nearly 1,900 people in the state.

North said the Culpeper School Board, like others, must assess its school buildings’ unique challenges and student populations when incorporating physical distancing recommendations.

“What may work in a secondary school may not be feasible in an elementary environment,” she said. “Likewise, some school buildings may have better HVAC capabilities that will influence physical distancing decisions.”

“One thing that is a necessity this year for students, parents, teachers, school staff and School Board members: We all need to remain flexible, be open to solutions to new challenges never imagined, and to keep informed on the most up-to-date, scientific information on COVID-19,” North said.

Different guidelines may be recommended over the summer as researchers and health officials learn something new about the still-mysterious SARS-Cov2 virus, she said.

“No one asked for this pandemic,” North said. “No one fully understands the novel virus that has been with us for just seven months. Culpeper, like every school division across the country, is trying its best to provide a meaningful, educational experience for each of their students, teachers and staff in the safest way possible. We all need to accept that school will be different this year, but working together we can make it a success.”

A teacher speaks out

Culpeper resident Sharon Fitzgerald, who taught English and creative writing for eight years at Eastern View High School, wrote the School Board and the Culpeper Star-Exponent on Wednesday to express her grave concerns about Underwood’s recent statements.

Fitzgerald, who will start teaching in Manassas public schools this fall, said many Culpeper teachers are frightened by Underwood’s “social media threat” to defund schools after Aug. 31 if the district isn’t operating classes in-person five days a week.

“If you continue to push on teachers, then you will see even more dedicated and experienced staff leave Culpeper after this year. They are at a breaking point and feel little support from city council, the BOS, or the School Board,” Fitzgerald wrote each board member. “We do not have to be on the same political side to realize this cannot be about politics, but (is) about the well-being of your students and staff.

“Failure to support your staff will impact the education in Culpeper County for years if you do not address it,” she concluded. “... The teachers of this county need to hear from their School Board that they will be funded and supported this year. You cannot control the (Board of Supervisors), but you can be a voice for your teachers.”

Supervisors Chairman Gary Deal, in an email Thursday evening, noted that the county switched to quarterly budgeting this spring to adjust for the unknowable fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking for himself, not on behalf of the board, Deal said: “My personal opinion and position will always be to fully support our teachers and bus drivers, and all employees of our school system, regardless of live-session parameters that will be forthcoming. I trust the School Board’s decision-making process during this crisis, and I will ultimately support them in the future.”

Underwood said Culpeper should make virtual learning an option for some students out of safety concerns. “I fully recognize that certain populations are much more vulnerable to COVID-19, and we should provide different educational opportunities for them,” he said.

(4) comments

David Reuther

Ms, Jennings has a sensible suggestion. Make those responsible for the policy pay any damage the policy inflicts. Suing business is very American. Look at Monsanto paying billions for Round-Up. Think of the big money the tobacco companies had to pay. Asbestos! You bet. This American tradition is probably why at one of the President's recent rallies the audience had to sign agreements not to sue if they get sick. The virus is real, like measles or chickenpox. It is easily spread. The Secret Service is seriously depleted because it has to advance WH travel and work in cities where social distancing and mask regulations are lax. Yes, sue the school board.

Jeanette Jennings

Just to be clear, the comment below was written by James and not Jeanette Jennings, though I think she'd agree with me on this.

Jeanette Jennings

Will Mr. Underwood, and those who are pushing this insanity, agree to be held financially responsible for the medical bills caused by this purely partisan approach? If the County agrees to this nonsense, it should only be done with accountability for those responsible. No one wants to be in the mess we're in, but pretending like it's a hoax, and ignoring people's safety is an act of pure selfishness.

David Reuther

I had two medical appointments this week and the certificates on the walls assured me that I was getting the best advice from people who have deep scholastic roots in those particularly issues. Mr. Underwood has no certificates, but he does have a noticeable political agenda that does not even offer much flexibility. With the chair of the Culpeper Republicans on the School Board, what can we assume? WH full speed ahead? Nuance has not been part of the "full-speed-ahead" crowd's thinking. Let's hope we don't kill off or chase away our teachers by putting politics ahead of medicine.

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