BOE candidates give final thoughts on COVID-19

Posted 10/23/20

While school boards have certainly always made important decisions, in recent months they’ve stepped into a larger, more harsh spotlight — deciding about re-opening schools in communities where …

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BOE candidates give final thoughts on COVID-19

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While school boards have certainly always made important decisions, in recent months they’ve stepped into a larger, more harsh spotlight — deciding about re-opening schools in communities where deep disagreements and divides on the subject exist.

At Chatham County Schools, this holds true. Over the last six months, the CCS Board of Education’s decisions regarding the district’s plan for returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic have been controversial — with teachers, parents, students, faculty and staff alike. During an election year, these decisions, and the public’s reception to them, are particularly important.

It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of candidates on this year’s ballot for Chatham’s Board of Education seats have made discussing COVID-19 plans a priority for their platforms. This year, two of the non-partisan board’s five seats will be up for re-election this year, with incumbent Melissa Hlavac facing opposition from Tim Winters and Ryan Armstrong in District 1, and incumbent David Hamm from Dennis Lewis in District 2.

“As you can imagine, these decisions have been arduous and, in many instances, agonizing,” Hlavac told the News + Record, adding that it was difficult to make a decision that is satisfactory to all community stakeholders given the “broad geographic footprint and cultural and socioeconomic diversity” of Chatham.

Hlavac, who has served on the board since 2016, added that the task of measuring COVID-19 data that is evolving — and at times contradictory — makes the board’s work anything but easy. A champion of equity issues at CCS during her tenure, Hlavac says she has consistently emphasized both safety and equity in the board’s discussions regarding learning plans. As a “seasoned” board member, she said she is comfortable leading decision-making based on doing the right thing for the district, not for political gain.

“In this precarious environment, COVID-related decisions are some of the most critical decisions we will render, yet we must move forward with the backdrop of ongoing policy setting and guidance that must continue to propel the school district in a positive direction,” she said.

Both of Hlavac’s opponents have been critical of the board’s decisions regarding the coronavirus, with Winters describing its decision-making process as being “painful to watch” and Armstrong claiming the board “lacked communication and preparedness” at previous meetings.

Winters, who has two children in Chatham County Schools, told the News + Record that while he felt the board’s most recent decision was the right one, the process leading up to the decision felt erratic. On Sept. 23, the board voted 4-1 to extend remote learning through the end of the semester, which ends Jan. 15. At that meeting, the board planned to meet the following week to discuss making exceptions to Plan C for certain subset groups. On Sept. 29, the board unanimously approved hybrid learning for Extended Content Standard E.C. students, PreK students and K-2 students (who were not previously discussed) and indicated that other students might go back to hybrid learning before the Jan. 15 date decided the week before as well.

“I think at the end of the day, they probably got to the right decision in terms of providing a way for the parents that need to get their kids back into schools, to give them an avenue to do that. But it’s such a roller coaster right to watch,” Winters said.

He added that he thinks parents and teachers in each school should be surveyed to see their priorities, and that if elected, he would advocate for re-opening plans customized by school.

“I’m a huge believer in the masks, the social distancing, and obviously the hand hygiene. You know, the virus is not a hoax, it’s not going to go away in two months, it’s going to be with us, I feel, in a meaningful way for unfortunately, probably for the next 12 months or so,” he said. “I believe we do have schools out there that can probably get their kids back into a hybrid learning scenario right now, and so again, I’m glad that the board is kind of getting there. But you know, I know it’s a roller coaster for a lot of parents and the teachers for that matter, as well.”

Winters said he believes there is a “huge opportunity” during the pandemic to improve communication between the board and stakeholders, and that he doesn’t think doing so would cost the district anything.

Armstrong, who advocated for a hybrid learning plan for all students in response to the News + Record’s candidate questionnaire, said he’d like to see a plan that allows flexibility for students and teachers both in opting for remote or in-person learning — emphasizing the added workload for teachers who will teach in-person class and also have to teach remotely.

“We’ve got to understand the virus isn’t going away. That’s for starters. Second, you know, the administration has to make a better plan,” Armstrong said, adding that if elected, he will be “visible and reachable.”

Though the board is non-partisan, Armstrong is running on the Chatham Republican campaign ticket with Dist. 2 candidate Dennis Lewis. Armstrong stressed that his campaign was focused on education and not politics, but affirmed that he and Lewis had the right backgrounds for the job.

“I want the voters to know and understand that even though I’m running on the Republican ticket, at the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s right, by the students, the teacher, and parents,” he said. “It’s time to take politics out education, and focus on education, because we have a great school district.”

In District 2, Lewis has emphasized wanting to serve as “the voice of the parents” if elected, particularly by re-assessing the Seaforth attendance zone decision. Though he said he is not a career educator or parent of CCS students like other candidates, he believes this gives him an open mind, to approach decisions without any “fixed agendas.”

Like the other candidates running for election, Lewis criticized the board’s decision-making process, and questioned which factors were considered to reach decisions.

“I think the COVID-19 situation is both confusing and concerning,” Lewis said, adding that while much of current media coverage focuses on cases and death count, there’s not as much coverage of how the virus impacts younger children or how schools have successfully opened.

“I think that right now, we should have a plan in place with trigger points, to say we’re going to open and the plan is already there, so people aren’t caught off guard — to have a plan to reclose again, if something bad should happen,” he added. “I don’t see this plan. I don’t see this plan communicated. And I think that causes a lot of frustration throughout the community.”

Facing Lewis in District 2 is incumbent David Hamm, who has served on the BOE since 2008 — winning his last two terms without opposition. Hamm has consistently prioritized the safety of teachers and students in the board’s discussions on COVID-19 learning plans. At all three of the board’s meetings passing motions related to the coronavirus, Hamm has made the motion for remote learning — first with the board’s July 16 decision to start with four weeks of remote learning, then with the board’s Aug.10 decision to extend that period to nine weeks and finally at the board’s Sept. 29 meeting, which extended remote learning through Jan. 15.

He has also emphasized the difficulty of the decision — reminding residents that no decision will make everyone in the community happy.

“When all this started, and things started coming down, I remember saying and I know I said at one of the meetings: the only consistent thing we have going right now is all the inconsistencies coming at us. And it hasn’t changed,” Hamm said.

Prior to the last 12 years serving on the board, Hamm taught in the school district for 40 years.

“I do feel that I have and give a perspective on the board that every school board should have,” he said.

Still, he anticipates that this year, a lot of people will vote strictly based on his COVID-19 decisions and votes — something he says is just a part of the job.

This past week, cases in the state have experienced record highs, with daily new cases setting consecutive records on Thursday and Friday. And while making decisions about COVID-19 certainly isn’t the only thing the board does, COVID-19 has impacted in some way all the decisions it does make. And making those decisions never gets easier, Hamm said.

“I’m sitting here saying, ‘Did we make the right decision, sending the kids back today?’” Hamm said Monday, regarding the return of certain student groups to hybrid learning Oct. 19. “You know, for every email we get saying that we are the most wonderful people in the world for sending kids back, we get an email saying that we’re the most dangerous people in the world for sending kids back.”

He added, after a brief pause: “So you know, that just comes with the territory.”

You can read more about the BOE candidates and their non-coronavirus priorities on our website, under articles titled, “Chatham school board candidates prioritize COVID-19, redistricting plans” and “Candidates talk goals, plans for Chatham County Schools.”

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