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COVID issues dominate Preston School Board meeting

KINGWOOD — At Monday night’s two-hour Preston County Board of Education meeting some board members said they wouldn’t vote for a vaccine mandate, the board and concerned parents agreed to form a committee to discuss how to move forward with school as COVID continues and the superintendent explained why there was such short notice in the switch to remote learning — over 60 alerts of COVID positive kids that day.

Near the end of the meeting, Debbie Zigray, a teacher in Preston County for more than 40 years and wife to board member Jeff Zigray, said she was sick of the bashing of the board members and teachers on social media and said she thought everything could be resolved if there was a committee or a special meeting to discuss the issue.

By policy, board members are not allowed to address members of the public or take action on issues that are not on the agenda. President Jack Keim began by reading the policy related to public comments and said he wanted to hear everyone’s opinion and be fair. 

“Yes we tell our kids for rights but we teach a concept needed to resolve things. If the parents are here speaking, if they would meet with you guys in a special meeting to try and get this solved about vaccines and masks, I think it can happen,” Zigray said. “Instead of people coming to board meetings bashing. You don’t think your kids hear you at home? They come to school they repeat what their parents say. And it’s a shame that’s going on in our county.”

More than 30 people, many of the same who have attended previous meetings to advocate against a school mask mandate, attended the board meeting with several addressing the board. Each was limited to five minutes.

Initially Keim asked the members of the public remaining — all of whom appeared to be against masks and vaccine mandates — to select five or six people to form a committee; however, board member Pam Feathers said she thought all the stakeholders should be involved.

After some discussion between board members, members of the public and superintendent Stephen Wotring, a rough format was decided. Feathers and Jeanne Dreisbach volunteered to represent the board. Keim asked Nathan Moore, who has spoken against a mask mandate multiple times, including Monday, to work with Wotring to help assemble the committee. 

The committee will also include principals, teachers, high school students. High School, elementary and middle school will all be represented at the suggestion of Teri Kisner, who spoke Monday and said she plans to run for the board in 2022.

Keim made it clear the committee would probably not be able to make a recommendation in time for the Sept. 27 meeting, during which the board will have to make another decision about masking in schools.

However, in the interest of transparency, which was an issue raised by Kisner as one of the biggest complaints with the board, and allowing the public to attend, Keim asked for a voice vote to move that meeting to 5 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. The vote passed 5-0.

Kisner also said a big complaint with the board was communication and pointed to the short notice in the switch to remote as an example.

Wotring said there was no indication Friday there would be so many cases as to force schools into a closure and that staffing was a bigger problem than student absences.

“This morning we just got hit out of the blue. We had no inkling over the weekend,” Wotring said. “But one of the people on the list today was tested Sept. 5 and they showed up on our list from the health department today.” 

Wotring said the health department list first thing Monday morning had 60 names on it. While trying to process those, the health department called with six more names. And then another call saying there was a long list of students who tested positive. 

Wotring said he asked if those kids had been in school and was told “probably.” 

The reason for the switch to remote learning until Sept. 27 is to allow for the full quarantine period by anyone who may have been exposed, Wotring said.

Staffing was also an issue with eight classrooms uncovered Monday. Most of the county’s substitute pool is already filling empty positions and the extra call-outs were too much. 

Zigray said one teacher was out because her daughter was in quarantine.

“Our whole thing is in this county we are lacking substitutes. So if anybody has a college degree or whatever, I’d say be on the substitute list,” she said.

Keim and Feathers both said they would not vote for a vaccine mandate.

“I think somebody, when you were talking about vaccinations, mandatory vaccinations, oh boy. I just, I guess I’m maybe going to have to come back and sit with you all because I don’t know that I can handle that,” Keim said.

Feathers said, “They will not have me in this seat to vote for a mandated vaccine. Ever.”

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