Blytheville board mulls move to virtual rest of semester

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

During Monday night’s Blytheville School Board meeting, board member Desmond Hammett advocated for the district pivoting to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester.

Hammett motioned for all schools in the district to move to virtual until after Christmas break in January. Board member Carlony Lewis seconded the motion, but after a lengthy discussion that included the legality of such a decision, board member Tracey Ritchey abruptly left the Zoom meeting, leaving the board without a quorum. A message left for Ritchey Tuesday had not been returned at press time.

Hammett left the call shortly afterwards when it was apparent there would be no vote, and the board was unable to conduct business on action items for lack of a quorum, so Michelle Sims, filling in for president Erin Carrington, adjourned the meeting. Before doing so, Sims suggested board members join a Zoom call with the state to hear firsthand whether or not they can legally make the decision to go virtual for the remainder of the semester.

“If we shut the school down, you would be calling us critical, you would shut down sports,” Blytheville superintendent Bobby Ashley said after Hammett left the meeting.

Ashley contends the school board does not have the authority to pivot to virtual as the decision has to follow consultation with the Arkansas Department of Education.

On Tuesday, Ashley forwarded an email to board members from Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer, Ed. D., which reads, “Based on our conversation and the review of your district’s data with the ADH, it appears that you are taking appropriate steps to respond to positive cases at your elementary school and the number of quarantined adults at your high school. Decisions related to long-term closures to onsite learning must be made in collaboration with the ADH and supported by data.”

Blytheville High School moved to virtual for the rest of the week, because of difficulty finding substitute teachers, according to Ashley.

Sims said she is concerned that gatherings over Thanksgiving break would lead to more cases in the district if in-class learning resumes the following week. Hammett, Lewis and Sims all spoke in favor of pivoting to virtual, while board member Tobey Johnson was unsure that the board had the authority.

However, the NEA Town Courier obtained a text conversation between board members after the meeting, and Johnson elaborated on her position.

“I want everyone to understand my feelings; if I was running the country, I would do exactly what Australia did,” Johnson wrote. “I would close everything that is non essential for a 6 week period and watch our spikes go down…but unfortunately I do not have the authority to run the country as we do not have the authority to make Covid decisions according to those in charge.”

Lewis responded, “Yes ma’am. To you Mrs. Johnson I hope the meeting will be tomorrow. But I just can’t believe that all we care about is sports. And thanks to Tracy for hanging up. I know it was no accident. It is going to take a student or staff members to die before we shut it down. Oh forgot this is not a meeting.”

Hammett said Ritchey may have lost connection, but noted he left because “I was going to say some bad words Tobey. Lol.”

During the meeting, Ashley told board members he suspects he knows how the vote will turn out, but he questioned several times if the board could legally shutdown the schools.

Hammett said he researched it and assured board members they could. Ashley asked Hammett who he spoke with at the Arkansas Department of Education and before Hammett could answer, Sims suggested the board hear directly from the state on the issue.

“Those that govern us say, we want you to stay open if you can,” Ashley said, noting Covid numbers have to support the move.

He noted if it weren’t for the lack of subs, Blytheville High School’s numbers would not support going virtual.

“I’m not comfortable as a board member waiting for our numbers to hit that threshold,” Hammett said.

“We have to be proactive in our leadership,” he added.

Johnson said she agrees with Hammett, but doesn’t believe it’s a decision for the board to make.

She added students are struggling with virtual. “Our kids are not learning virtual,” Johnson said.

Ashley said there is no better instruction than face-to-face.

Sims also said she is concerned about students learning virtually, but more so for their health and the health of staff members.

According to Ashley, at Blytheville Primary School, there are three students who are positive and three with close contacts and a staff member with close contact for seven total out.

He said at Blytheville Elementary School, there are 10 positive cases among staff members and 23 close contacts; another three staff members are out for no childcare. Six BES students are positive and there are 44 close contacts. There are a total of 88 out at BES, with 17 positive cases and 68 close contacts.

Ashley said at Blytheville Middle School, there are no positive cases among staff but two close contacts. Four students are positive and 39 have close contacts. The total out is 45.

At Blytheville High School, there are two positive cases among staff and nine close contacts. One is awaiting test results and three staff members are out with no childcare.

There are four students with positive cases and 29 with close contacts. The total out is 48 at BHS.

Meanwhile, the board also discussed the Chickasaw Arena project. Ashley noted the district has been credited $12,300 for spots on the gym floor, though he noted most can’t tell there is an issue. He said the money is there should they need to address the problem, though contractors believe it will not be an issue at all and the district will ultimately save that amount on the project. Johnson suggested using the money for a rubber walkway around the second level of Chickasaw Arena.

Ashley said that would likely cost more than $12,300.