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Board of Education meeting draws public response

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Jan 15, 2021

Members of the public gathered at the Jefferson County Board of Education office Monday evening in support of free speech. The board meeting, scheduled to be held in person, was moved to a virtual platform that afternoon. Toni Milbourne

CHARLES TOWN — Monday evening’s Jefferson County Board of Education meeting drew a significant amount of public comment, with much of the focus centering on Gov. Jim Justice’s order to return to school in-person.

Many teachers mentioned concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom, when West Virginia is seeing a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Priscilla Rodd, a special education teacher, said she has personal health concerns that raise her awareness of the virus.

“I feel like I’m being sent in without a shield,” Rodd said, as she urged the board to not move the county’s schools toward in-person learning.

Lynneia Atkins, representing AFT Jefferson, said a survey conducted by AFT showed 80 percent of respondents do not believe it is currently safe to return.

“They don’t feel comfortable to be there without vaccinations,” Atkins said, mentioning 44 percent of the 403 respondents indicated they would consider using a leave of absence or sick days, to avoid returning.

Angela Wyatt, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, agreed, saying 50 percent of those her organization surveyed are against returning to in-person learning.

The board members made no decision on the matter, and had no significant discussion on the safety of returning.

Also raised in the public comment portion of the meeting were concerns over letters sent to school district employees by JCBOE Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson placing them on suspension while under investigation, due to their attendance at the rally to support President Donald Trump on Jan. 6.

Two employees, Tina Renner and Pam McDonald, both bus drivers, received such letters, and have since filed a civil rights lawsuit against Gibson personally in the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

The suit claims Gibson violated the First Amendment rights of Renner and McDonald. According to the suit, both employees are Trump supporters who traveled to Washington to hear the President speak, but did not participate in any illegal action.

Richard Urban, of Harpers Ferry, voiced his concern Monday evening.

“The letters were threatening,” Urban told board members. “Bullying creates a terrible work environment. The board should investigate Dr. Gibson.”

Speaking on behalf of Gibson’s action to suspend the individuals was Ebone Frame, who thanked the superintendent for investigating “terrorists.”

“We sign a code of conduct,” Frame said, referring to school system employees. “It is what it is.”

The board members did not discuss the issue of the letters sent by Gibson. The action they did take regarding the matter, however, was to transition its originally scheduled in-person meeting at the JCBOE office to a virtual meeting, in fear of a First Amendment rally scheduled to be held in front of the office. Nearly 100 protesters gathered peacefully at the office with signs calling for Gibson’s resignation.