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Sumter County Board of Education considers and denies Dr. Choates’ recommendation

During the regular meeting of the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) on Thursday, February 11, the BOE voted to not accept Dr. Torrance Choates’ recommendation to offer student families a choice in returning to school or continue virtual learning. The vote was 4-2 against opening the doors of Sumter County Schools (SCS). Sylvia Roland and Jim Reid voted in favor of offering the SCS family an option. Abbis Bivins, Carolyn Hamilton, Vincent Kearse and Patricia Harris voted to decline the choice.

Abbis Bivins accused Choates of not having put together a functional plan. Bivins stated that Choates “waited to the last minute.” She told Choates “This should have been in place 2 or 3 months ago. We should have been in place.” Choates reminded the board that while his focus has been on establishing the plan for virtual education because it is the format the BOE voted upon, he has also been presenting options as to how to return to school should they want to consider such an option. For the first 3 terms of 9 weeks, Choates has recommended SCS remain virtual in its option. This is the first time in the school term he has recommended the SCS families be offered an option. As Choates has done in the past, he and his team collected surveys in which he took the families’ desires into account. According to Choates, the responses indicate 44% of families want to come back to school, 55% of families indicate a desire to continue with virtual learning. Although these surveys have been collected, Bivins questioned why the community at large has not been surveyed. “This plan should include the community. Shouldn’t just be the school board because everybody involved in COVID 19 came from home to here and from here to home. This (surveys) is not the community This just parents, we want community, everybody, not just parents.” Choates assured the BOE that his team has been in contact with the Public Department of Health, the Center for Disease Control and the Georgia High School Association. When asked by Barnes if his plan followed all the recommendations of those entities, Choates responded in the positive. Bivins continued to press the superintendent and eventually asked him if the vote should be tabled as the BOE had received new information within the last 24 hours. Chairman Rick Barnes clarified for Bivins that a vote had to be made during the session so students and parents would be prepared to go forward.

Carolyn Hamilton made serval points to include busing of the children as the weak link in returning to school. Previously in the meeting Choates had indicated “there is no possible way to social distance 6 feet on bus. It is not practical. The State is understanding about that. I’ve not seen any schools except maybe private or charter schools that social distance on school buses. Ideally, love to do that but man-power and bus-power—we don’t have it.” Hamilton made the point that putting more responsibility on the bus drivers was not appropriate. Barnes followed up on what the plan would be should a student present with a fever at the bus stop. Choates indicated he has spoken with Sheriff Eric Bryant and a plan will be formalized; however, no child will be left unattended should this be the case.

As a result of having questions left standing from the work session this past Monday, Choates provided an update. Some of the topics included water fountain protocol, attendance, substitute teachers and streamlining the handbooks across the SCS network. In determining his recommendation that families should be given a choice to return to school or continue in a virtual only format, Choates reports “all the decisions are complicated and well scrutinized. I don’t have regrets going virtual all 3 of the 9 weeks and I’ve been under scrutiny. But at some point, we have to make the decision to step out there. Are we going to run into COVID situations? Absolutely. Are we going to do a lot of contact tracing? Absolutely. But it is time to get back out there. It’s time to get these kids, as many of them as want to, back to school.” Choates then reviewed the list of safety precautions which will be utilized. “We are going to be as proactive as we can to prevent the spread of COVID.”

Jim Reid then addressed the accusations made during the meeting. “(Choates) Has been trying his best to go back to principals and has been working on it. You can armchair quarter back all you want but they’re doing the best they can to get everybody back to school and keep everybody safe. At some point in time people have to assume personal responsibility of self. Bus drivers have to take his own temperature.” Reid then made the point bus drivers can assume this responsibility as they do their checklist every day before beginning their routes. Reid also recommended not running the buses as he felt having no bus fleet would solve issues related to concerns over the safety inherent in busing. “Don’t run buses—parents can bring, or they can stay virtual. But I am not going to sit here and let our superintendent, staff, our principals be armchair quarterbacked because they have been working since last summer to get kids back in school. This is the closest we’ve come to taking vote to get back. He has presented the most up to date plan he can tonight. That’s best they can do, that’s all we can do. You make decision on information you have at this time. And with this disease nobody has right, unless they have a crystal ball, to armchair quarterback somebody else.”

Choates closed out his presentation by saying, “Those parents have a right to make a choice. Think about parents that want kids back in school. They deserve a choice. At some point we got to look at those kids and bring them back in the building.” Choates also added, by giving the in- school option it gave administration a chance to “debrief” and see what has been effective and what would need to change for the better in following school year. The vote on Choates’ recommendation was then taken and defeated. The school will continue to offer a virtual only format for the last nine weeks of the school year.

In other action from the night, the BOE approved the purchase of 100-foot concrete poled lighting for the practice field. Also approved were the financial reports as well as the personnel recommendations of accepting 5 retirements, 3 resignations, 3 Family Medical Leaves, 2 employments, 1 military leave, 1 long term substitute and 4 job descriptions as written for jobs at Ignite College and Career Academy. This meeting, as well as all meetings since COVID-19 precautions were put in place can be found at the Sumter County Schools Facebook page.