Note: This article has been updated to add comments from Newton County Schools Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey.
COVINGTON, Ga. — Two groups of protesters gathered at the front steps of the Newton County Schools Board of Education on Tuesday to voice their support and displeasure with how school is set to begin Aug. 24.
Just before 5 p.m., a group of parents, teachers and students assembled outside the board of education on Newton Drive with signs supporting the choice to decide how students are taught, whether it be virtually or in-person.
Newton County Schools announced June 30 it would offer parents and students the option of virtual or in-person instruction. On July 10, a total of three options were announced. Options included the traditional, in-person instruction model; “school-based” virtual model and “self-paced” virtual academy.
Whitney Strickland, who is a teacher at Mansfield Elementary School and the mother of students at Newton County Schools, said she was in support of the right to have a choice.
“I’m out here for my kids, because my kids want to go back to school,” she said. “I totally support virtual, but for my kids, our family decision was to be back in person … I think [the choice given by the Newton County BOE] is fabulous. I’m glad they’re leading instead of following. They’ve taken several surveys of teachers and parents, and I just appreciate that they’re taking our opinion to heart.”
Strickland said it was important for her children to be in a classroom this fall because they don’t get engaged at home.
“They weren’t engaged this past spring,” she said. “They did the bare minimum. And they’re suffering emotionally and mentally.”
Blake Alexander, a fellow parent and employee of the school system, said he was also in favor of letting students back in the classroom.
“People are arguing that we should go virtual for the safety of the students,” he said. “But when holistically, when you think about the safety of the students, we have to think about more than the virus. That’s why the signs that I made talk a lot about mental health. The students that are at home and not at school, there’s a higher chance that they’re facing abuse — physical, sexual, neglect. There’s a higher chance of child exploitation. There’s a lot of students with mental health issues that aren’t receiving the services that they need. There’s students that are suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts. Seventy to 80% of students with mental health issues get the services they need at school. So to send everybody virtual, we’re discounting all of those issues and all of those students are being left behind.
“If we really want to talk about the safety of our students, we should give them a choice,” he continued. “For a lot of parents, they need school for the food. They need school for the safety. Sometimes when kids come to school, that’s the only time they feel loved and needed, and we’re discounting all of that merely because of the virus. So I think if we took a holistic approach to everything and focused on all the things that keep kids safe, then giving them the choice is the best option.”
Supporters like Strickland and Alexander rallied together in opposition of a second group that emerged later to protest against in-person instruction.
Among protesters in opposition of in-person instruction was Jammie Phillips, a teacher for Newton County Schools. When asked why she was there, Phillips said: “Because I am afraid for my life.”
“I’m the only one [in my family] that’s slated to go to work at this point and bring the virus to our house,” she said. “I’m concerned that the individuals that are on the other side believe that the virus is not real. It is very real. I’ve lost friends and family members.”
Phillips said she was for virtual instruction only, at least for the start of the school year.
“They keep talking about the students and the kids, but they’re forgetting the staff,” she said. “We don’t have a choice whether or not we can go back into the building or not. That’s not a choice that was given to us.
“I’m excited to be here and meet my new kids,” Phillips added. “I was ready, I got all my stuff, but it’s not safe at this time… The facts are the facts. The numbers are up in Georgia. It’s not safe at this point to open up the schools.”
The Newton BOE met at 5:30 p.m. for its third and final public hearing to discuss the proposed millage rate and met at 6 p.m. for its regularly scheduled meeting.
During the board's regular meeting, Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said that of 12,000 students, about 4,000 students have requested in-person instruction, about 6,000-7,000 students have requested virtual instruction and about 1,800 students have requested the self-paced virtual option.
“Those options are still out there," she said. "I am working closely with the health department… If a shift is necessary, we will not hesitate to make that shift. We’re watching and we’re waiting, and I recognize there are folks out there struggling to make decisions and teachers who are feeling uncomfortable about returning to the classroom, and we have processes in place to mitigate those circumstances. I completely understand that the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff is our No. 1 priority."
Fuhrey hinted that reopening schools for in-person instruction could be done on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re still not done looking at it, because, you know, if only 15 kids request in-person [instruction] at one particular school, then it doesn’t make financial sense to open that school to serve those 15 students, so we may have to make some adjustments from that," she said.
"But I want to make it clear to everyone that — not just me but our entire board — I think that we’re together on this topic when it comes to the health and safety of our students, and if we have to pivot to a different decision, then I think that’s what we need to do as a group of administrative leaders in our community.
"Everybody is nervous about what’s going on in our community and the transmission rates. So I want to assure everyone that I’m a part of community. I, too, have a child in this school system, and I want the very best for everyone’s children. I want my child to be safe just as much as I want everyone else’s children to be safe. And if a decision has to be made, it will be made … we will communicate it far and wide if we have to pivot and change course.”