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School Board candidates widely support remote learning

The candidates for the Henderson County School Board widely agree that returning to school this month with remote and not in-person learning was the right call, although one candidate urged a quicker return to the classroom for the youngest pupils.

All eight candidates participated in a virtual campaign forum Thursday morning sponsored by the education committee of the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates are running to fill four seats on the seven-member board. Incumbents Michael Absher and Blair Craven, the current board chair, are running for re-election. The retirements of Rick Wood and Mary Louise Corn created two open seats. Other candidates are Florence B. Allbaugh, Ervin Bazzle, Robert M. Bridges, Stacy Caskey, Walter Doughty and Kathy G. Revis.
After an almost five-hour meeting last month, the School Board voted 6-1 to institute the so-called Plan C — remote learning only — for at least the first six weeks of school. The board rejected Plan B, a reopening with public health precautions in place, giving families the choice to opt out. No candidate opposed the School Board’s decision, though former Revis, a retired educator and central office administrator, urged bringing K-2 children back as soon as possible. Here are the candidates’ responses on returning to school (in the order that they answered):

• Allbaugh: “CDC has recommended we should limit contact until things have settled down. Right now don’t have a vaccination.” Also, some schools need renovation “to address certain issues that are airborne. … You cannot press students to continue to wear their mask because I know students — they’re going to take it off — and we want it to be a safe environment for all.”

• Bazzle: “I totally agree with the decision made by the School Board. Until that’s addressed, the other issues are secondary.” What the board can do is make sure all students have access to on-line tools. “It’s going to be a difficult time,” a challenge that involves not just the School Board but employers and families. “It’s going to involve the whole community.”

• Bridges: The School Board should recognize “the importance of our administrators and making sure the decisions they make are for the good of the students, for the good of the community and for the good of the staff. We must with this covid make every day a different day because it changes every day and we have to adapt to the change that comes about each day and each week. I would encourage our administrators to stay on top of covid-19 and the governor’s recommendations and would ask that the administrators be pro-active with our students and dealing with their education experience.”

• Caskey: “Throwing the question out to our superintendent was a wise decision. There’s no easy decision” and the stakes are high when having students back in school is an important part of the economy. The situation is personal because her high school-aged daughter “desperately wants to be back in school with her friends and teachers” at West Henderson High School, she said. “This became very real to me about three weeks ago when one of my students tested positive for Covid.” She had to be quarantined and tested twice. “It shut my business down for two weeks. Now think about this on a large scale with Henderson County schools. … People say we should reopen schools. Our schools are reopened. My daughter is taking four AP classes and she is working harder than ever.”

• Craven: “Being part of that decision was honestly one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make.” He said after talking to the county’s public health director he was convinced that the schools could try in-school classes. “But something that stuck with me was something that Dr. Bryant, our associate superintendent, said. When there’s a snow day, a lot of times we don’t get it right but we err on the side of caution. With Plan B we were not erring on the side of caution. … I’m teaching my kindergartner how to be a kindergartner, to quit touching the mute button 100 times in an hour. It’s not easy, we understand that. We want to get our kids back in school but we want to do it safely.”

• Doughty agreed that special education children need one on one in-person schooling but that others are adapting. Children have been learning in front of screens for years, he pointed out, through programs like “Sesame Street.” “Our educators are amazing individuals,” he said. “They’re used to shifting gears and taking curve balls all the time.”

• Revis departed from the view that all learning should be remote only, saying the younger grades need to reopen if possible. “If we can get our K-2 children back to school and make that a priority, I think that is going to be best for those children.” The youngest pupils “don’t learn remotely. They learn by doing. I think that has to be a priority. I agree we need to do it safely.”

• Absher agreed with Craven that the back-to-school choice was “one of the hardest decisions” the board has confronted. Like all but one board member, he voted for Plan C. “But I also do agree with Dr. Revis that our K-2 and our special needs students really need that one-on-one instruction.” School buildings are open on a limited basis, he said. “We have a lot of students going in for instruction on a one-on-one basis.” Besides safety for children, “I’m also worried about the staff. How are we going to take care of them, how are we going to find a substitute (to teach) virtual? How are we going to find a substitute that’s going to handle virtual and in-person at the same time?”