By Dave Taylor
During a special meeting Thursday the Hancock County School Board voted to implement a split A/B model for returning to school on September 28, but not before hearing from a crowd of parents who voiced their opposition to anything short of returning to school full-time.
According to a handout given to the crowd, the student populations of each school will be divided roughly in half, with Group A attending in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday and Group B attending on Wednesday and Thursday. The off days will be virtual, and all students will be virtual on Fridays. A state map showing the seven-day running average of daily positive cases designates each county as green, yellow, orange or red, with yellow and orange allowing the A/B model and green allowing a full return for all students. To reach the green level the county must have less than one new case per week based on a population of 100,000.
While the presented plan does allow students to return to class two days a week, which is more than the zero days currently allowed, every parent and staffer who spoke up at the meeting said they wanted to get their children back in school five days a week.
The only person signed up to speak to the board was P.J. Emmick, a mother of four kids in the district, but namely of a teenager with special needs, whom she said was being harmed by virtual learning.
“He has regressed without school and peer interactions,” she said. “He is not only losing out in interaction with peers and teachers daily, this has caused him severe anxiety and stress.”
“According to his IEP, which is individual education plan, which is a legal document and must be followed, he is not receiving the services that are to be provided by the school,” she said.
He needs close, personal attention and additional help with learning using graphic charts and organizers, along with other tactile stimuli.
“How is he getting that through the virtual learning days? He isn’t, I can tell you,” she said. “His IEP goals cannot be measured or met through this plan.”
“Can we not look across the river and see that they’re going five days a week and have been since the beginning of August? How is that possible” she said. “In regards to this plan being the best for children to grow, my child is not growing. He is wilting. This is not working. We need five days a week.”
Shane Ball, who was recently appointed to the board to fill a vacant seat, said he also wants kids to return to school five days a week, although the only plan being offered to vote on was the A/B model.
“This plan is a basic plan at best. It gets our kids in school for two days a week, but it’s not acceptable,” he said.
He said the A/B model was a start, but that he wanted to come up with something better soon, especially given that other districts in the area have brought all students back five days a week without any major issues.
“…I could send my kids to Owensboro Catholic right now,” he said. “I could take my kids across the river and they could go to school right now… The virus doesn’t know the difference between Hancock County and Owensboro Catholic. The virus doesn’t know the difference between a public school and a private school. The virus doesn’t know the difference between Kentucky and Indiana. There are schools that are being very successful going five days a week and I think we owe it to the kids to bring something a little bit better than this right here.”
Board member Donna Quattrocchi spoke and said the plan does allow for five day a week school, but only once the county’s level of positive cases drops to below one a week where it can be in the green.
“Right now the health of the community is in yellow and orange. When we get to green you’ll be able to go five days a week,” she said.
She then scolded the crowd, which wasn’t well-received.
“I’ve noticed in here we have 10 percent of the people in here not wearing their masks appropriately, so if the masks aren’t doing any good, you might as well take them off,” she said. “…If we’ve got adults in here that can’t follow how to put a mask on, we can’t expect our children to.”
Some in the crowd scoffed and others pointed out that Quattrocchi had removed her mask while speaking and using the same microphone that others had been using.
“You don’t have a mask on right now,” said one woman.
“You don’t have a mask on and you literally just are speaking out of a microphone that was in his mouth,” a man said.
One woman who works at one of the schools, read a letter saying she was going to have to quit her job because she has a child and doesn’t have the money to pay for childcare while she’s at work, a story echoed by others, including one teacher who said that she knows of some teachers who are looking into taking leaves of absence in order to be at home with their children.
Another parent told the story of how her child has been exposed to things that they wouldn’t otherwise be in a normal classroom, due to being at home alone doing virtual learning.
“I watched one of the teachers in the elementary school have to talk to the children about swearing and cussing in the chat box yesterday afternoon,” she said.
In a prior meeting the board had been given statistics about higher rates of child hunger and other negative impacts of children not being in school, which she used to ask why the district would choose not to bring kids back.
“We can start citing the American Academy of Pediatrics that says it’s really better for us to be in school, we can talk about mental health… we can talk about sexual abuse, kids are not eating in their homes. If we know those stats, how is this survival rate worse than all those things?” she asked.
Superintendent Kyle Estes acknowledged that the A/B model was imperfect and was a recent change after the state required that all students wear masks at all times rather than only in certain circumstances, but he also added that the information constantly changes and doesn’t necessarily always make sense.
“There are a million things that I can’t explain with this stuff and I readily admit that,” adding that early recommendations for cleaning surfaces has fallen by the wayside.
But he said the recommendations from the state are ones he plans to follow.
“They’re guidelines that are set by policymakers that have knowledge in public health and we have traditionally always tried to follow those,” he said.
“So when do you start listening to your community though?” said one woman, to applause. “…I get that that’s a guideline, there needs to be rules and there needs to be safety protocols, but your community is looking you in the face and saying this is not OK, this is not working for us. When does that come into play?”
The board voted to approve the A/B plan, with potential revisions at the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at the high school.