School schedule likely a moving target

By Ruthann Carr

At Wednesday’s (May 13) School Board meeting the board approved the 2020/21 school calendar calling for students first day to be Aug. 3. 

However, that could change as things continue to be fluid due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Kelley (Palmyra) said the Board needed to start somewhere.

“…the calendar represents what is likely a moving target,” Kelley said. “I’m confident all of these dates will change, but it’s a good-faith, best effort to provide a quality education.”

Superintendent Chuck Winkler agreed; adding the calendar isn’t set in stone and isn’t perfect.

“It will change but I have to make some plans for the next school year,” he said. “(The calendar) adds six instructional days in the first semester and six to the second semester. This is an intense, learning focused calendar, not a professional-development focused calendar. This calendar assumes Johnny and Susy are going to be in the classroom on Aug. 3, but the way things look right now, I doubt that.”

The meeting was held in person at the administration building following social distancing guidelines. Kelley took part from home. Andrew Pullen (Columbia) did not attend.

Winkler reported a possible graduation date for the 2020 class: July 11.

“No specific plans have been decided,” he said. “The team will meet within the next few weeks to discuss possibilities.”

For curriculum and instruction Winkler said he is exploring a virtual teaching platform.

“The process will take several months to develop if it’s required,” he said. 

In the meantime, the school will continue providing virtual learning opportunities along with hard-copy packets to students through the end of this school year.

In other actions, the board approved changes to the health care plan offerings minus the spousal exclusion. However, they said it would likely be part of the 2021/2022 plan. 

The spousal exclusion would mean if the spouse’s employer offered insurance, the spouse cannot get insurance through the schools. 

The board voted to not force that exclusion until next year because they didn’t feel there had been enough notice. 

When it came to passing the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, the board tied on the first vote: Johnson and Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) voted against; Kelley and Shirley Stewart (Rivanna), for.

Johnson said she voted no because with the rise in health care costs to staff, the budget didn’t offer the additional, original raise or contemplated changes to scale B compensation. 

The FY21 budget is nearly $42.7 million, which is $1.2 million more than the current year budget. 

Winkler proposed using the extra money in the following ways:

  • A one percent pay increase ($634,000);
  • Adding a special education teacher, a literacy coordinator, additional hours for athletic trainers and extending a career and technical apprenticeship by one month ($160,797);
  • Substitute coverage cost ($25,000);
  • Health insurance ($400,000);
  • Trip bus driver pay ($20,000).

Johnson said her May 4 called-meeting proposal to have the Board give “serious consideration” to using any leftover funds from the FY21 budget to give teachers a retroactive pay raise was met with little enthusiasm. 

Kelly said his goals all along have been to fairly compensate staff, but it was important to recognize the extreme circumstances everyone was in because of the pandemic – particularly the expected decrease in state and local tax revenues. 

Johnson suggested not hiring the literacy coordinator position.

Stewart said that position is needed given the pandemic-shortened instructional time. 

“I’m concerned about giving up the literacy coordinator especially this year with students who’ve been home for a few months,” she said. “We need help figuring out where we’re at with our students.”

Kelley agreed. 

“I would argue cutting the literacy coordinator is a ginormous mistake,” he said. “Look at the gaps between the haves and have-nots… the literacy coordinator seems so fundamental to our charge. To be frank, over the last couple of years we haven’t increased all that much and we did a big thing by keeping health care cost increases away from teachers for several years. We have a responsibility to all our students…we need this more than ever. If we do not have this position we’ll see widening gaps.”

The Board decided to reconsider the budget vote. 

It passed on the second vote: Johnson, Stewart and Kelley for; Rittenhouse abstained.

Johnson made a motion to discontinue Esports – the online gaming extracurricular activity where students compete against other schools. 

She reiterated her past objection based on two of the three sanctioned games are warned to contain violence, drinking and the questionable portrayal of women. Johnson said she didn’t think the school should encourage that message. She also cited an American Medical Association study that concluded the more screen time a student had in a day had a negative effect on learning.

Both Stewart and Kelley said they agreed about the choice of games, but they felt those in charge would find more appropriate ones.  They said students who wouldn’t normally take part in athletics or other extracurricular activities were playing Esports and reaping rewards.

Rittenhouse said: “I can’t think of a more horrible waste of time than playing video games. I guess I’m old school.” 

Kelley said Esports “gives someone who’s not interested in traditional sports a chance to play for Fluvanna in a sport. As for Mr. Rittenhouse’s fundamental issue with technology, there’s not much I can do about that.”

The vote ended in a tie with Johnson and Rittenhouse voting to ban Esports and Kelley and Stewart voting to keep them. 

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