| The Shelby Star
More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition asking the Cleveland County Board of Education to reconsider its decision to send some of the county’s youngest students back to school this month.
In December the school board voted 8-1 for a plan to send all prekindergarten through fourth-grade students back to five days of instruction following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
With coronavirus case counts climbing to a critical point, some have now expressed concerns with that plan. A petition created by Amanda Buchanan, media specialist at Shelby Intermediate School and parent to a fourth-grader, and shared on change.org has garnered more than 2,500 signatures in less than a week.
“I see the social distancing in the schools. It’s gone rather well and I agree we are mitigating the spread inside the schools, but I feel that’s because we are doing the right things. We are wearing masks. We are socially distanced. I think the second you take that away, especially the social distancing, you will see an increase in the schools,” said Buchanan.
The petition asks the board to keep students in the two-days-on, three-days-remote model the district has used since August at least until the county-wide spread has been reduced.
“Our schools are part of our community, and therefore, the decisions regarding when schools are safe to open, should come from monitoring the data from our community,” reads the petition. “We cannot treat them as mutually exclusive entities, as they are intertwined and each affects the other. If we want to get this virus under control, we have to make decisions that will support slowing the spread in our communities.”
Specifically, Buchanan is asking the board to set a plan for a return to schools based not on a certain date, but on metrics which would show a decline in community spread of coronavirus.
As of Monday, Cleveland County has 7,149 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 145 deaths associated with it. According to health officials, those numbers are expected to keep climbing. In December Cleveland County was listed as a “red” county under the states new classification system, indicating a severe level of community spread of coronavirus.
Metrics laid out in the petition would, under the state alert system, place the county out of the red status.
School board members have been aware of the petition since it started gaining traction last week.
“I am aware of the petition being circulated on social media. I do expect COVID and school schedules to be discussed at all of our board meetings until local and state health officials give us the ‘all clear,'” said board chair Robert Queen in an email. “I am in contact with the county manager, health director, and other local health professionals regarding our situation. Any information gathered has been shared with all board members.”
The school board is expected to discuss whether to follow through with the Jan. 19 start for five-day instruction or to push it back when it meets next week.
Board member Rodney Fitch said the start date can be changed if necessary.
“If you’re going to go on vacation in Florida, you are not going to wait ’til two weeks before to plan that vacation. You are going to plan that months in advance, set a date and prepare to get to that location. Now if the week before you go to Disneyland and a week before you go they are calling for a hurricane, you are probably going to change your plans,” he said. “That is all we are doing here. We have to set a date to work toward getting school open.”
Phillip Glover, who voted against the current plan for a return to school, said he shares many of the concerns laid out in the petition.
“I want students back in school, but I want to make sure we can provide a safe environment for both students, teachers, and staff. Our teachers and staff have done an outstanding job keeping everyone safe but bringing more students in the classroom during these crucial times without social distancing is alarming to me,” said Glover in an email.
Danny Blanton said he is willing to support a delayed start if necessary, but said students and teachers aren’t at any greater risk of exposure to coronavirus in schools.
“We’ve had very few cases. You could probably count them on one hand, that actually got it, if we’ve had any. I don’t know that and I can’t prove that, that they got COVID from the school house,” he said.
So far this school year Cleveland County Schools has reported 427 cases of coronavirus. The district does not distinguish between student and staff cases, nor does it state where cases originate from.
Dustin George can be reached at 704-669-3337 or [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DustinLGeorge.