After a very divisive school year, my hope is to be apart of the solution. I know that I can work along side Dr. Ross and the current board members to address some of the district's most pressing concerns. We owe it to our children to come together and collaborate, despite of our differences, for a better future.
The response to COVID-19 is not one size fits all. Regardless of if one is referring to masks, vaccinations or learning framework - choice must always be available. What may be appropriate for some, will not be appropriate for all and we must embrace the various needs of our district. District Five currently has an all virtual option (FIVE) in addition to its traditional in-person classes. It is imperative that these options remain available to meet the needs of our diverse population.
I understand and respect that there are those who are uncomfortable returning face to face in a traditional setting but some children learn more effectively in a traditional environment and may opt for the face-to-face framework. We must remain diligent in balancing health and safety in conjunction with options that are accessible and serve the educational needs of all students.
There are many varying opinions and choices regarding COVID, but we must never lose sight of the importance of community wide, mutual respect. There is no place for bullying, coercion, or discrimination based on one's personal choice. COVID-19 will not be going away any time soon but, with proper infection mitigation techniques, we can limit exposure and potential transmission within our district. Common sense approaches such as frequent handwashing, staying home when sick and enhanced cleaning protocols will allow for a safe and effective learning environment for the families who choose to return to face-to face-instruction.
The district has a student population of 17,500 and an annual budget that exceeds $200 million. Responsibility of overseeing these funds requires transparency, integrity and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars to ensure that all schools within the district have their needs met. All clusters must be treated with equity and fairness. All respective voices, from each cluster, will have an advocate and an avenue to be heard with me.
Critical Race Theory
We are currently in the midst of unprecedented times where many divisive issues are a part of, not only our community, but our educational curriculum. As a Trustee, I will place the highest value and importance on the input of those I serve and I want to follow their interests for the best possible outcomes of educational pursuits.There is a large push within the educational systems across the country, in which children are being taught that organizations are systemically racist. While racism does exist, no one is born inherently racist. We must ensure that Critical Race Theory stays out of our schools. We must foster an environment in which all are treated equally with equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of skin color. We also need to ensure that historically accurate, non-biased curriculum is being taught.
Teachers are the foundation of our district. They are tasked with equipping our young people with the knowledge and skills necessary to emerge into society as functioning adults. In order to continue to provide top-tier, quality education for our children, we must recruit and retain well-equipped, quality teachers. Many teachers across our state feel unsupported and unappreciated. As a district, we must be leaders in achieving change. Teachers need to be appropriately compensated for the time and energy they invest into our children. They need to feel safe in their own classrooms knowing they can enforce rules and implement disciplinary policy while have support of administration. By working together with administration and staff, our board will ensure that teachers and students have the best classroom environment in South Carolina.
Let's talk... COVID testing.
Some families want the option of testing so that their children can return to school prior to the required 10 days. Parents/guardians who choose to test their "close contact" children need to have an inexpensive and convenient way of doing so.
Rapid tests can be expensive. Some clinics require an appointment, which are not always available. Some free testing sites, such as DHEC, have had several hour waits over the last week. Some clinics are no longer testing asymptotic exposures.
The district needs to provide the option of cheap and easy testing for affected families. Lower income families or families who do not have the option of spending hours waiting in line, might miss out on the opportunity for their child to return sooner. This is further marginalizing these children.
Some children are being forced to quarantine multiple times in a short period. This further exacerbates the situation. I believe there are multiple ways the district could go about addressing these concerns. Some ideas include:
1. The district could set up a testing site for exposed D5 children to come, free of charge. This could be run by a D5 nurse.
2. The district could supply an at-home rapid test for the families who request it. These tests are easy to do and have been shown to be accurate. Many airlines are now allowing them as a testing option.
Either of these options could be funded with ESSER monies. We need to ensure all families within the district are allowed the same opportunity for early return, regardless of their resources. It's time to think outside the box.
Let's Talk... Dual Modality.
Per S704, school districts are prohibited from assigning a teacher to deliver instruction to students via dual modality unless:
1. "It is reasonable and necessary due to extreme and unavoidable circumstances in order to ensure that all students have access to highly qualified instructors"
2. "The school district must provide additional compensation to the teacher"
With quarantine numbers on the rise, the district must ensure that our children are still receiving a high quality education - even when not allowed on campus. A packet of worksheets or a few assignments posted to Google classroom is not sufficient. Our children deserve better.
While I believe the current quarantine policies are excessive and need to be re-evaluated, there may be some quarantines that are unavoidable. I consider the current handling of quarantine protocols as leading to extreme and unavoidable circumstances.
The district recently received $6.5 million in ESSER funds from the federal government which is intended to help cover COVID-related expenses. Additional teacher compensation related to dual modality is a COVID-related expense.
Unfortunately, there was no funding allocated for this. I would urge the district to reconsider the allotment of ESSER funding to allow for dual modality. With each quarantine, our children are falling farther and farther behind. While some duration of quarantine may be necessary in certain cases, we need to ensure the affected children are not being marginalized.
Parents, teachers and students need stability. Quarantining large amounts of students and whole classrooms based off a potential exposure to a single COVID-positive student creates chaos and disruption to instruction. Teachers and parents are left scrambling to get together lesson plans and childcare and a healthy, asymptomatic child is left to suffer.
We must have a quarantine policy that reflects the global data that shows K-12 classrooms have been some of the safest environments throughout this pandemic. We must also be ensured that schools are following district policy and that all students, regardless of vaccination status, are treated equally.
As a medical professional who has treated hundreds of COVID patients, I know I can be a strong voice in revamping our quarantine policy to return stability to learning and the every day lives of parents and teachers.
Prior to this year, the board voted to raise the millage rate (property taxes) to the maximum limit for over a decade. Unfortunately, most of this money has not gone back to our students, teachers and classrooms.
While older school buildings were structurally deteriorating, millions of dollars were spent on a new school that is not at full capacity. While teachers' salaries remained stagnant, the board voted to increase their own stipends by 256% years ago.
While academic programs lacked funding, millions of dollars in "cushion" sat untouched.
All the while, taxpayers voted to build a school in the 2008 bond referendum and millions were wasted when the district purchased a piece of land, intended for the school, which remains unused to this day. This decade-long spending binge continued as the district used our tax dollars to purchase additional properties with no intended purpose.
As a board member, I promise to be a strong steward of our tax dollars. I promise to vote against further tax hikes, will work to lower the millage and will ensure our current monies are being spent transparently and appropriately. We have a large district with a budget to match and I promise to ensure the bulk of our tax dollars are going back to our schools - not contractors, developers and consultants.
We live in an age of technology. The pandemic has shifted more focus onto technology and it's being used in ways never thought possible. Unfortunately, it seems our district has struggled to meet the demands and needs of our growing community.
A few examples of this struggle include:
1. Earlier this year, a virtual town hall for a community of nearly 20,000 students, teachers & staff, was limited to only 250 viewers. Because of this limit, a large portion of the community was left out.
2. The COVID dashboard is consistently outdated and does not accurately reflect current data. The information regarding our daily case number and number affected within the district is essential to the health and safety of our district.
3. A suggestion was made last year - during two separate board meetings - that children without internet access could sit in a "mall parking lot" to do their virtual work. This statement is unacceptable for many reasons and insinuates the district is not capable of meeting the student's needs.
4. There was no follow up on the November 2020 SC Department of Education purchase and rollout of a standardized integrated digital learning solution. This would have saved the district a large sum of money in addition to streamlining online learning.
These examples illustrate why there is room for growth and improvement when it comes to information technology within our District. We must ensure that our I.T. directors' resumes are competitive and comparable to our neighboring districts. We must ensure we are on the same playing field as other districts within our state. We must ensure our students, teachers and parents have access to the technology they need to stay informed and be successful.
While many issues have been already been addressed, they shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. Let’s have high standards as a district that put our staff and students in a position to succeed.