Reopen Public Schools or Provide Education Choice

by Vicky Manning

When I was elected to serve on the Virginia Beach School Board in 2016, I never imagined there would be a time when I would have to fight to keep our school doors open. However, that is what I have been doing for the last 6 months.

The last day of in-person learning was Friday March 13th. At that time I felt the right measures were being taken to “flatten the curve.” However, as the months of school closures continued, I questioned the toll it was taking on our students.

I have been pushing since June to get our schools prepared to safely return our students. Elementary students and grades 6 & 9 were finally phased back into in-person learning around the beginning of October. The plan was for all other grades – 7,8,10,11,12 – to return last week under a plan for 2 days-a-week learning by splitting the students alphabetically by last name. Half of those students went back to school for 2 days last week, but if you were unlucky enough to fall into the A-L last name category, you got the plug pulled when the announcement was made by the Superintendent to return all students to virtual learning. Those students have not been in a classroom since March 13th.

I have lost track of how many calls and messages I have received from parents sharing with me the struggles they are facing with remote learning. I don’t blame the teachers because they aren’t the decision makers and they are doing their best with the tools they have been given. I hear from parents who have students with special needs who just cannot learn virtually. I hear from parents whose children are losing motivation to learn because they don’t feel they are being challenged in the virtual environment. Students who signed up for vocational and other hands-on programs have been doing book work for 2 months. I’m not sure how effective online learning is for carpentry, automotive repair and welding.

I hear from parents whose once energetic and outgoing teens are now suffering from anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health related emergency department visits during the pandemic for children aged 12–17 increased 31%. Our own pediatricians advising the School Board emphasized the rising numbers of children with anxiety and depression they are seeing in their offices.

There has not been a single case of COVID transmission in Virginia Beach Public Schools. Yet on Monday the Superintendent, supported by a majority of the School Board, decided to close schools for in-person learning even for our students with special needs. My heart is breaking for those families. Virtual learning just doesn’t work for them and these children often rely on routine to be successful.

I fully support families who have made the choice to remain virtual but for those who desire and need in-person learning, they should also have that choice. The Virginia Constitution states that the General Assembly “shall seek to ensure that an educational program of HIGH QUALITY is established and CONTINUALLY maintained.” It also says that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”

The public should demand that their local and state elected leaders provide them with their constitutional right to a high-quality education. If they can’t do that then let these families use their tax dollars to seek out an alternative education for their children. Private schools have remained open. I guess the difference is that the private schools are not beholden to the VBEA Union. The same VBEA that used their Grim Reaper mascot as a fear tactic at a school board meeting and used the slogan “canaries in a coal mine.” I’m not a superstitious person but it is interesting that the last day schools were open in March was Friday the 13th and the last day of in person learning in November was Friday the 13th.

I am a parent of two high school students who have only seen the inside of a classroom for 2 days in 8 months. Fortunately, I have the ability to enroll them in sports clubs to help keep them active and social. However, there are many families who don’t have that same ability and now that schools are closed there are parents who have to decide if they are going to stay home to help their 5th grader with virtual learning or go to work in order to pay their bills.

The cure should not be worse than the disease. Contact your elected leaders and let them know how you feel.

Vicky Manning is a member of The Virginia Beach School Board. This column has been republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.