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Upset parents sound off, call for schools to reopen

With two children in Suffolk Public Schools who haven’t yet reached the third grade, Tabitha Sidwell said she was not equipped to teach them properly, and they were not given the skills needed to navigate a virtual learning environment.

As both she and her husband work eight to 10 hours a day, Sidwell said they come home and have to teach them what her own working mother couldn’t after they spend the day with her.

“Any child that is under third grade was given these computers, no instruction, a password, a login and a tablet and told, go be free, figure it out,” Sidwell said. “You provided them with a platform that was designed for college-level courses with zero instruction to the children, or the parents. And we are forced to navigate this alone.”

Sidwell was one of more than a dozen parents — many with specific concerns about special education — who outlined their frustrations with virtual learning to the board during its Oct. 8 meeting and asked it to consider having students return to school for in-person instruction.

“I knew graduating high school that I was not built to teach,” Sidwell said. “I didn’t go into that as a profession. I did not go to school for that. And now, that’s what I’m being required to do? And I’m not the one being paid for it.”

Division administrators, including Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice, outlined the division’s reopening plan along with a proposal for special education students to return to school for four half-days per week.

The board deferred action to its Oct. 23 retreat on bringing all students back two days per week, and voted 5-2 against bringing special education students back for the additional days. Currently, some special education students are attending school two days per week.

Rice outlined the division’s proposal to bring pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students back to school two days per week on alternating days beginning Nov. 16, and then bring back students in grades 6 through 12 Nov. 30, also for two days per week on alternating days.  Students in the College and Career Academy at Pruden would attend one day at their home school and two days at CCAP.

Parents will be receiving a new survey by email or phone on whether they want a virtual or hybrid learning option for their children.

Jonathan Rankin praised the board and division for its initiative and creativity in providing alternative resources to educate students, but he said the current policies and guidelines in place are not working for pre-K through third-grade children.

Rankin said his 5-year old daughter is a kindergarten student attending the AlphaBEST program at Pioneer Elementary School.

“My point is, this age group is at the beginning of their journey in educational development and growth,” Rankin said, “which should be closely monitored and supervised. … The level of supervision that these children are receiving for eight hours is subpar.”

Greg Kasmark called for the school division to return to in-person learning, citing other cities in South Hampton Roads that have either returned some students to school or have a plan to do so.

“I don’t know why the School Board isn’t listening to the public and the working parents,” Kasmark said. “Not only is the School Board holding back our children, they are causing parents to neglect themselves because they are so busy being involved in their children’s schooling.”

Amber Feliciano has two children with special needs. She said she spends all day with one child — one she said does not fit the definition of a severely disabled child and is normally in inclusion classrooms. That child, she said, is falling behind despite her best efforts. Her other child attends school twice per week.

“Families that have health risk factors, they know the needs of their families,” Feliciano said. “I strongly believe that each child and each family in this district should be given the option of virtual or in-school learning.”

Kirstyn O’Neill said virtual learning is not just setting her son back further, but ruining their relationship. She said she did not like the impression she got from board members about children in special education.

During the meeting, board Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck cited the small classrooms she observed recently for some special education children as a reason to not have them in school more often.

“The equity of their education should have mattered before COVID,” O’Neill said. “They’ve always been in unfairly-sized classrooms. Now those classrooms are the catalyst for denying them an education.”