School board Chairman Karen Whetzel speaks Thursday during the opening of the meeting.

WOODSTOCK – Some area residents who are upset about Shenandoah County Public Schools going all-virtual the first nine weeks of school spoke out about the decision at Thursday's School Board meeting.

Joshua Whittington was one of 11 speakers to offer an opinion.  He said he doesn't believe the reason they made the switch to all-virtual has anything to do with health concerns. He said that he tried to get a laptop from the division for his son and was told the division does not have a plan yet as to how they will be distributed.

"With two extra months in the year you would think that you would have multiple plans as to what you're going to do but it doesn't seem like anyone had a clue," Whittington said. "It seemed like to me that was the real reason (to go all-virtual) because listening to the last meeting (on Aug. 5) about pushing it back it seemed like they were a couple ostriches that just pulled their heads out of the sand trying to figure out where they were. I think it's more a lack of planning than the actual (health)."

On July 9, the School Board voted to use a hybrid plan that would have students doing in-person instruction for at least one day a week. Part of the plan that was approved was a caveat that if the school needed to be held all-virtually due to health concerns, it would be schools Superintendent Mark Johnston's decision. Last week, the School Board held a special meeting and voted to push the start of the year back from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31. Johnston and the School Board agreed to consider going all-virtual to start the year due to health concerns for students and teachers. Johnston said he would talk individually to each of the School Board members to get their input and then make a decision, which he announced on Wednesday.

Jessica Brigner spoke about how she was concerned that special needs children won't be taking in-person instruction. Brigner said that she is a single mother and has two children in school, one with special needs. She works 12-hour night shifts and sleeps during the day.

"There is no substitute for in-person interaction," Brigner said. "Parents have the right to choose the appropriate education for their children – myself and other parents of special needs children are given no choice in Shenandoah County. ...Switching to a day shift is not an option for me. I'm not the only parent with concerns of their work and home balance for Shenandoah County's plan. A plan which we all know was decided a mere two weeks before the start of school. I and many others believe this is not a reasonable amount of time for most parents to make alternate arrangements."

Jennifer Lowery said she is also concerned with students who need special services.

"I would just like to remind the decision-makers involved that there is a whole population of students who do not have the ability to learn online," Lowery said. "These are students that require the services of reading specialists and special education teachers and that hands-on skills that they provide. The Chromebook is not going to replace the qualified specialists so many children need. ...I am speaking with you tonight because of all children's rights to an equal education. While I understand the safety concerns that were taken into consideration by coming to the decision to go fully virtual, we must understand that one blanket decision for all children does not meet the responsibility of the School Board to provide each student with an equal opportunity for education."

Rick Koontz said that he would like to see the School Board be more creative and not just follow what others are doing.

"The public has lost faith in the public school system," Koontz said. "And the idea that the right thing will be done in the future because of recent poor decision making. We need a progressive and creative superintendent. We need a progressive and creative School Board. We need leaders now, not followers. Don't take the easy path just because that's what others are doing, get creative, get innovative."

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