COLUMBIA CITY — A plea for change. This was the main message behind the community members who spoke out during the Whitley County Consolidated School Board of Trustees meeting last week.

Many of these voices asked for in-person engagement from the school board members, asking them to talk to teachers and better understand the challenges they and the students face each day before making decisions for the district.

“What we failed to do is recognize the people who have been in the trenches all year. The teachers, the backbone of our community, and those who are in charge of our children on a daily basis. I see people when we are out and I hear people talk, and if some of the things that teachers say are going on is going on in our classrooms without the support of you guys — without the support of our administrators — is beyond ridiculous,” said Pat Krouse, a community member who spoke out during the meeting.

He added, “Where have you been? None of you have the right to tell any teacher how they should run a classroom because you are not there. We need to talk to them (our teachers).”

Some of the strongest voices to speak were the teachers themselves.

One of those to speak was Carly Blake, who expressed concerns with the school board’s decision to implement a Montessori learning environment as one of its elementary education options. The decision was made to add this more open learning environment structure to Mary Raber Elementary School at last month’s board meeting.

“I personally believe that prior to opening a Montessori school we should look deeper into the schools that we have at this time. Issues in the schools are causing teachers to resign,” said Blake. “We have class sizes of 29 or more in school due to lack of teachers, which hinders student’s growth and prohibits teachers from maximizing student potential. If we say student safety is our priority, then why are class sizes not considered in this matter? Our children’s education is foremost the top priority. Please get out and listen to your teachers.”

Heather Shively, a teacher at Little Turtle Elementary School, announced her resignation at the end of the school year.

“The work environment of this corporation has become toxic,” she said. “I am tired of fighting a losing battle. I am tired of being set up to fail my students and I cannot do what is right for them. I can’t help them in the way they need to be helped. My hands are tied and I am failing them. We are failing them.”

Shively added, “I’m standing here for my community, for the children that are entrusted to our care and who deserve better than what we are currently giving them. I am here on behalf of all the teachers who are tired, burnt out — but continue to show up every day to love and teach the students of this community and for those teachers who wish they could speak up but cannot for fear of losing their jobs.”

Shively asked the school board to listen to the voices of the teachers and staff.

“Ask the hard questions and go into the schools, sit in a classroom and just listen,” said Shively. “I understand that running a school is like running a business. But we are in the business of people, the littlest people who are counting on us to do what is best for them. They are not dollar signs and they are not a score on a test or a letter on a report card. They are worth so much more than that and they deserve so much more than that.”

Others who spoke shared their frustrations at the school’s COVID policies, particularly as it relates to contact tracing, which requires students who are in contact with another that tests positive to quarantine for 10 days. Many to speak on this issue asked the board to take note of districts in the surrounding areas and revise this policy.

Jill Wilson said she saw a change in her student who was quarantined for two months without being sick due to contact tracing.

“He became a different kid in quarantine,” she said, adding, “I feel like we’re putting a burden on kids that they don’t need to bear.”

Her husband, Shane, shared that a small group of parents got together to share data in their experiences. He said that amongst them there were 90 occurrences of students in quarantine with zero of those students being sick.

“Way too much school is being missed,” added Kevin Scott. “Listen to county physicians and make the change.”

A part of the frustration for parents that was shared was the challenges of virtual learning with weak internet.

Nikki Venable praised her children’s teachers for their help, but also expressed frustration after having to spend $1,000 to improve the internet. Part of having to learn from home, she noted, also means parents must stay home, losing out on work.

“How are we supposed to care for our families?” she asked. “Give us our choice back. Let me be the parent that chooses for my child.”

Still, others parents also asked the school board to reconsider requiring masks for the next school year, asking that it be a choice.

“I would like to apologize to our children for allowing it to go on so long. We pledge allegiance to the flag for liberty and justice for all but at the same time we are teaching our children freedom and justice in history, we are making them wear a mask and teaching them to be compliant like sheep,” said one parent, Damian Stafford. “We owe our children an apology for allowing it to go on as long as it has.”

It is school board policy not to comment immediately on each public expression during the school board meeting.

What Board President Don Armstrong did say to the many in attendance was, “I assure you everyone does care and will be better because of all this because we have to. We hear you.”

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