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School board receives flood of comments on operations after Knox teacher’s death

SALISBURY — Sixteen people spoke to the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Tuesday night about COVID-19 and the district’s handling of the pandemic.

The outpouring of public comments, including from district teachers, followed the death of Knox Middle School teacher Matthew Beaver on Jan. 19 after testing positive for COVID-19. Superintendent Tony Watlington took a moment at the beginning of the meeting to recognize Beaver as well as two students who died from gunshot wounds last week. He attended Beaver’s funeral service.

Many of the speakers, including several Knox faculty members, were opposed to keeping school facilities open and pushed for the district to move classes all virtual.

Sally Schultz, a Knox teacher and the RSS Teacher of the Year, was the first speaker on the list. Schultz said many of the students at Knox have already experienced trauma. Beaver’s death has only added to that trauma.

She said no student deserves to lose a role model. She talked about the necessity of having to stand 6 feet away and while trying to comfort students.

Robyn Moody, an English teacher at Salisbury High School, highlighted concerns about precautions the district is taking. Moody said students take their masks off to eat lunch in class after otherwise being required to wear them all day, noted the inaccuracy of the no-touch thermometers used to screen students when they arrive at school, instances of desks not being 6 feet apart and that student can be exposed to the coronavirus outside of school.

Moody asked to eliminate variations in policies between schools, keep track of trends and to create a document to improve safety practices.

Several speakers reiterated the point one loss of a teacher is too many. They spoke about fearing for their own safety as well as the students. Concerns were raised about why more information is not available through Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

Two nurses, Rebekah Overcash and Candice Pethel, encouraged the board to look at studies about low COVID-19 transmission rates in schools and the developmental importance of keeping students in classrooms with their peers.

Brian Alford said it’s sad the the issue has been reduced to statistics. He criticized the idea of the blended model giving a sense of normalcy.

“There is nothing normal about what we’re doing,” Alford said.

RSS says it has no COVID-19 clusters, which the state defines as five or more cases that can be linked. After post-holiday spike, the number of cases reported daily declined in North Carolina. Though, health officials still regularly report multiple deaths per day in Rowan County.

Associate Superintendent Kelly Withers on Tuesday said staff quarantines are half the district’s peak on Jan. 11 — 62 as compared to 122. Active staff positives declined from 35 to 16. Withers counted 23 student positive on Tuesday, up from three on Jan. 11. 

Board member Dean Hunter said the district is not taking COVID-19 lightly. Hunter asked Withers to collect information that compares RSS to nearby counties with schools that are all virtual.

Hunter, a pastor whose wife wife is a teacher, said people in his congregation died after testing positive for COVID-19 and that someone he’s close too is seriously ill with the virus.

Chair Kevin Jones said the school board received many phone calls and emails about COVID-19 and the school system’s operations. The opinions have been mixed.

Board member Alisha Byrd-Clark said she is listening to everyone in the district.

Board member Brian Hightower asked Withers if the district has considered making COVID-19 information publicly available on the website. His answer: the district is considering a public data dashboard and plans to host voluntary staff webinars to receive feedback as well.

Watlington said the district will listen to staff and look into specific situations at schools. He also said the district will move quickly to get updated information on the district’s website.

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