PLEASANT VALLEY — Rev. James Saunders sounded a bit like one of the apostles he’s preached about at church.
During a Friday meeting of the Marion County Board of Education to discuss options for a planned Sept. 8 school opening amid the coronavirus pandemic, Saunders, who recently won re-election to the school board, rose to speak to Superintendent Randy Farley, with his colleagues at a table up front, and a small crowd of interested teachers, staff, and parents gathered inside the East Fairmont High School auditorium.
With words that obviously resonated with many members of the audience and which were followed by the meeting’s only ovation, Saunders did his best Doubting Thomas impersonation.
“Prove to me teachers, students, service personnel, and principals are going to be safe,” he began by addressing the superintendent.
“Prove to me the ventilation systems are going to be proper. There are a lot of complaints about school classrooms that don’t have windows and the doors have to be shut.
“Prove to me social-distancing is going to take place in the hallways between classes.
“Prove to me the buses are going to take kids to school distanced six feet away.
“Prove to me our classrooms, which are so small, are going to be spaced out enough to social distance.
“Prove to me our service personnel aren’t going to be taking a beating from administration because they can’t stay on top of all the cleaning that has to be done without more help.
“Prove to me we can actually go back to school and do the best we can,” Saunders said.
Saunders’ rhetorical soliloquy followed a presentation from Farley that touched on an array of reopening options, including normal operations, abbreviated or staggered school days, Chromebook assignments, virtual schooling, distance learning, or a combination of all of the above.
Saunders realizes, of course, coronavirus disrespects even the best laid-plans. But he wants reassurance the plans themselves are logical and feasible.
“I want the kids back in school. I think 99 percent of people want the kids back in school. But they fear. They fear what’s going to happen,” Saunders said. “I realize we’ve never been here before. It’s all new to everybody. It’s new to me, it’s new to Farley. But sometimes we jump ahead and get hurt.”
Saunders said he assumes his concerns aren’t being answered directly by the administration because they are impossible to answer.
“With all the scenarios we’ve been given, I want them to be able to prove — not only to me, but to parents and staff members — that it is safe and we’ve done everything we can,” he said. “I know our administrators are doing all they can. I know they want to go back to school.
Saunders said he has pressed for details regarding the measures being taken by the school board office to combat COVID-19, but has found few answers.
“I’ve sent the superintendent over 200 questions from teachers and service personnel and they want answers,” he said. “I don’t want to be told to go online and find out, to push some buttons. They need to hear the answers from the administration.”
For his part, Farley said the superintendent’s office cannot provide assurances any more than anyone else during this unprecedented time of societal upheaval. The superintendent said there cannot be an expectation thrust upon his office to “prevent everything under to sun.”
Farley said the call for such assurance is “an impossible ask” and said a child’s scholastic education this fall will likely come down to a decision made by the parents, choosing between in-person or online.
Saunders recommends waiting to see how the pandemic plays out locally, rather than rushing back into classrooms.
“Kids can still play sports. We can remote learn for at least a month until things are taken care of,” he said.
Saunders said he knows whatever back-to-school decisions are eventually made, not everyone will be pleased.
“No matter what decision is made, there’s not going to be a hundred percent agreement,” he said. “I officiate basketball. When I blow the whistle, one side of the gym is happy and the other side of the gym is unhappy. That’s what’s going to happen here. It doesn’t matter what scenario we choose.”