Keeping Schools Safe: School leaders worry ‘lack of transparency’ in Washington County, VA Schools amid COVID-19 pandemic, others have different perspectives

Keeping Schools Safe

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) — School leaders in Washington County, Virginia said they are concerned about how administrators are handling safety, as some schools in the system re-enter virtual learning.

Education leaders are worried about whether or not school systems are doing the best they can for students.

Pheben Kassahun spoke with school board members about how the school system is managing safety during the pandemic.

“Washington County has been particularly hard-hit, as far as Southwest Virginia is concerned with the numbers,” school board vice-chair Terry Fleenor said. “There are a lot of staffing issues, we’ve got a lot of teachers out for various reasons; bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school nurses. Some of them have created difficulties, teachers having to cover each other’s classes.”

Fleenor said there have been at least 32 positive cases of coronavirus among students and staff since October 6.

Fleenor told Kassahun in a Zoom interview: “The transparency of the public being 100% aware of what’s going on is a concern that I have as well because I don’t believe we have been as transparent as we should have been.”

Fleenor’s grandchild is on a virtual learning schedule within the school system.

“The fact that Rhea Valley Elementary in Damascus, VA, is going to full virtual instruction next week. It was already decided that all schools would be totally virtual for the two days of Thanksgiving week for consistency in the hybrid schedule. However, this move rests entirely in the fact that the number of cases has created a sufficient shortage of staff as to preclude successful operation of that school at this time,” Fleenor stated in his initial email to News Channel 11.

“You have to figure out how to educate children in the middle of a global pandemic, and that’s what we’re trying to do. At this point, I think we’ve done a really good job,” school board chair Tom Musick said.

Musick said: “To my knowledge, at this point, there has been zero cases of COVID cases contracted within a school. All of the cases, when they’ve been traced back have been contracted outside the school.”

The school system is working with the Virginia Department of Health and doing the best it can, Musick said.

“Everyone said, when we go back in person, it’s not a matter of if you’re going to have cases, it’s when. It’s how you manage it,” Musick said.

However, Fleenor said it may not be enough.

“We’re gambling with peoples’ lives,” Fleenor said.

Kassahun reached out to the school system’s superintendent Dr. Brian Ratliff about the concerns, who sent this statement:

“We are in regular, if not daily contact, with the VDH in cooperation and assistance with contact tracing and case management. We will continue to monitor the situation case by case and day by day with the VDH officials relying heavily on their guidance and support.”

Dr. Brian Ratliff
Washington County Virginia Public Schools

Dr. Ratliff said the link to the regularly updated confirmed cases that affect the school community is posted on the school’s website.

He also provided a link to the Virginia Department of Health website providing schools and the public with any current school outbreak information.

It shows neither the school system nor an individual school within Washington County Virginia Schools division is listed due to not having any school outbreaks to date.

“We do not have any cases of school transmission at this time,” Dr. Ratliff said.

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