Highland School Board Revisits School Closure Option
As reported here last week, the Highland County School Board held a special meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the recent spate of student absences due to the flu and other illnesses. The purpose of that meeting was to decide what steps could be taken to mitigate the spread of the illness within the school including consideration of a temporary school closure. At the meeting’s conclusion, the Board opted to keep the school open while reserving its prerogative to reconsider if student absences increased.
When Board member Kenny Hodges checked with the school administration on Friday to find out the latest absenteeism rate, he learned that 28% of the school’s student population was absent. Mr. Hodges then checked with Highland Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Tish Amirault to find out the medical center’s recent experience with patients presenting with the flu and flu-like symptoms. Ms. Amirault reported that 100 such cases had presented that week, leading Mr. Hodges to ask Ms. Amirault’s opinion as to whether the school should be closed in an effort to quarantine the students. Ms. Amirault advised that the school should be closed.
With that as the backdrop, the school board called a second special meeting for 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening. Superintendent Tom Schott started the meeting by listing the steps taken to clean and disinfect the entire school over the weekend and other measures to curtail the spread of germs. He concluded his presentation with the recommendation that the school not be closed, citing the need to continue educating the 72% of students who were not ill.
Board chairperson Sherry Sullenberger then opened the floor to public comments. Fifteen speakers shared their opinions, none of whom were in favor of a school closure. High school principal Tim Good led off, noting that this week’s agenda includes a number of significant student activities plus the last opportunity for 8th and 11th graders to prepare for next week’s English SOL tests.
Among the remaining 14 speakers, eight were faculty and administration members who urged the Board to keep the school open, noting that the illnesses could reappear as soon as the following week since many of the students would be forced to stay in group daycare settings where illness would continue to spread. Several speakers voiced concern about the message that would be sent to prospective attendees of the upcoming Maple Festival.
Some speakers, including members of the faculty and administration, chastised the Board for interfering in what they deemed to be a management issue best left to the superintendent and his staff. Dr. Schott noted that increased absences during the flu season are an annual occurrence and he is not aware of another time when the Board had inserted itself into the decision-making process.
Chairperson Sullenberger commented to those assembled that the Board cannot legally discuss school issues in other than public meetings. Consequently, the Board’s only legal means to find out what was going on in the school and to consider options was to hold this special meeting. Ms. Sullenberger has said in prior meetings, including last Wednesday’s special meeting, that she is committed to making school board business transparent to the public.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board voted unanimously to keep the school open this week.
This is Mickey Frank Thomas for Allegheny Mountain Radio.