About 40 parents showed up at the central offices of Oconee County Schools in Watkinsville on Wednesday morning to ask school administrators to delay the deadline for parents to make a decision on whether their children will attend school in-person or remotely starting on Aug. 5.
They also asked Superintendent Jason Branch and Board of Education members to come out to meet them and answer questions about the plans for the Aug. 5 reopening.
No one from the school system spoke with the group, and Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for the schools, said after the gathering broke up that the deadline of midnight on Wednesday remained in place.
Parents are required to go online and specify for each of their children if the child will be attending classes in person or choose the distance/digital learning option.
The children of parents who don’t respond will be assigned to in-person learning.
The assembled parents were spread out in a circle in the parking lot in front of the school offices and took turns with a bullhorn making their plea for more time, for more consideration of the needs of teachers and staff, and for mandatory masks.
Two adults and an accompany child, not wearing masks, walked into the center of the group and tried to challenge the speakers, but police intervened and the three left without incident.
Christian Sanchez issued a call for the protest to the Facebook group Safety First Reopening Schools on Monday, saying she wanted the school system to answer questions about the Aug. 5 opening of the county’s schools.
|Parent Gathering 7/15/2020|
A photographer for the Athens Banner-Herald was at the center of the big circle, and he live-streamed the gathering via Facebook.
Karen Hilyard, a member of the county’s Planning Commission, was the first speaker, and she said “We have called on the Oconee County School Board to gather more information and answer questions.
“When they said they were unable or unwilling to do that, we asked them to push back the deadline,” she continued. “That is really all we are asking for at this point.”
The five members of the Board of Education are not regularly at the central offices except for twice-monthly meetings, and the Board has not taken any action on the reopening plans, which have been presented to it by Superintendent Branch and his administrative staff.
The reopening plan announced by the schools will encourage students to wear masks, but, except on the buses, masks will not be required.
Masks played a central role in many of the comments at the gathering and in the signs held by the parents.
“Oconee County is making an assumption that most parents in the district don’t want their children to wear masks and yet they have never asked that question,” Hilyard said. “We have asked them to simply ask the question.”
Hilyard said if children don’t want to wear masks, or their parents don’t want to require them to do so, “they should stay home.”
“It is a collective decision we have made as a society to put science first,” she said.
Julie Mauck, with a child at her side, and Jeff Hood walked into the middle of the circle, not wearing masks, and tried to engage in a discussion, but they were rejected.
“You don’t want a dialog,” Mauck said.
They were told the goal of the gathering was to discuss the issues with the leaders of the school system, not with other parents. Hood told the group he does not currently have any children in the school system, but Mauck said she does.
Three Watkinsville Police officers were standing outside the circle, and one stepped forward and encouraged Mauck to step back. Hood persisted, but he, too, soon gave up and left.
“We are here on behalf of the school’s teachers, faculty and cafeteria workers, bus drivers who cannot speak for themselves because it breaks their chain of command,” one of the speakers who did not identify herself said.
“Their voices are not being heard. Their voices are being suppressed by the School Board,” she continued.
Katie Castleberry came forward and said she had been a school employee but “I chose to resign on Sunday because teachers aren’t allowed to ask questions.”
“They are terrified,” she said. “No one has asked them how they feel. No one has asked them what the year is supposed to look like digitally or otherwise.”
She said the only option is to post something via social media, but “We’re being monitored. When we post something, we get phone calls and we’re told to delete and there’s ramifications for continuing to do so.”
“Our teachers have voices and they need to be heard,” she said, “and they are terrified and they are so worried about the children and their own children. OCS needs to do better. They need to bring teachers into the narrative so they can move forward safely.”
Another Teacher Speaks
“My name is Lisa, and I’m a teacher,” another woman said. “This is really emotional for me to see so many people supporting teachers right now.
“I know that all of you know this, and I’m probably preaching to the people who are aware that we’ve been silenced, that we don’t have a voice,” she said.
“So I just want to thank you for honoring the work that teachers do,” she said.
“We have to stand together as a community,” organizer Sanchez told the group.
She advocated for hybrid classes that “would allow for all children to go back to school and split the load for the teachers, reducing infection rates and reducing the class sizes.”
School System Response
I asked Director of Communication Jimenez after the gathering if she had a response to the parents, and she responded this way.
“We encourage parents to review our detailed School Reopening Plan and the associated FAQs at oconeeschools.org/reopening.
“Commitment Forms are due today,” the statement continued. “We certainly understand that this is an unprecedented time.
“School system leaders are both parents and employees, and system decisions are not made lightly,” she wrote.
“Should local and state guidance change, we will be prepared to adjust as well,” the statement continued.
“We will continue to work hard to prepare for a successful school reopening and have provided parents two strong options that we believe best serve our community,” she wrote.
The reopening plans are the product of a Reopening Task Force, which reported on them to the Board of Education at its virtual meeting on July 6. The Board next meets at 6 p.m. in person on July 20 at the administrative offices on School Street, where the protest took place on Wednesday.
I had asked Jimenez via email on July 13 to identify the members of the Task Force, and she responded on July 14.
They include Superintendent Branch, Chief Academic Officer Claire Buck, Chief Financial Officer Saranna Charping, Chief Operations Officer Brock Toole, Chief Human Resources Officer Brook Whitmire, Director of Student Services Dallas LeDuff, and Jimenez.
Also on the Task Force, according to Jimenez, are the directors of Nutrition, Finance, Transportation, Maintenance, Facilities, Human Resources, Assessment and School Improvement, Elementary Education, Secondary Education, CTAE and Federal Programs, Special Education, and Technology.
Finally, according to Jimenez, all school principals are on the Task Force.
Input From Teachers And Staff
I asked Jimenez “how the Task Force obtained input from teachers and staff on reopening?”
“School-level leaders have been intentional about receiving teacher and staff feedback and bringing that input to the School Reopening Task Force,” she responded.
I am immune compromised and did not attend the gathering on Wednesday.
I shot the picture above with a zoom lens from in front of OCAF, quite distant from the school office parking lot.
My observations of the gathering and the quotes I have used above come from my viewing of the live-stream provided by the Banner-Herald.
My estimate of the crowd size comes from that video as well.