Schools to close for Wednesday teacher rally

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In a 4-2 vote, the Wilson County Board of Education decided Monday to cancel Wednesday classes and tell students at the county’s public elementary, middle and high schools to stay home.

The decision was made at a 4 p.m. emergency meeting to discuss the possible school system closure due to the high number of teachers who planned to be absent to attend the March for Students and Rally for Respect.

The North Carolina Association of Educators organized the rally to advocate for teachers across the state.

Other area school systems have already announced their intention to keep students home in light of teacher absences for the rally.

The Wilson board voted that all schools will have teacher workdays except for the Wilson Early College Academy and Wilson Academy of Applied Technology.

The first vote resulted in a tie, with board members Henry Mercer, Gary Farmer and Debora Powell voting for the teacher workday without students and members Velma Barnes, Robin Flinn and Chairwoman Christine Fitch voting against.

Barnes decided to change her vote to a yes, citing her concerns for student safety.

Board members blamed the NCAE for putting the school district in a position of having to close at a time when students are taking exams or preparing for them.

“The irresponsible party is the NCAE for putting this on the school systems,” Flinn said.

“It puts us between a rock and a hard place,” Fitch said.

“If someone gets hurt, it’s on us,” Farmer said.

Farmer called the decision to hold the rally on Wednesday “poor timing.”

“I am happy that the teachers are having an opportunity to voice their concerns for the issues that face them every day and face our school systems every day, but I am somewhat disheartened in that the timing of this rally is, in my opinion, not in the best interests of the schools that they serve,” Fitch said. “We are quickly approaching the end of the year. It is time for EOGs and EOCs and I know that prep time was to be given for some of these. We have IB exams. We have AP exams, and this is a very critical time.”

“It is critical because we have employees who, without the students being in attendance, will not have the chance to come to work, which means that they will not have a chance at income,” Fitch said. “We have our teacher assistants. We have our child nutrition employees. We have our bus drivers, so we are faced with these issues when we are forced to close because of inclement weather. I know it is important for the teachers, but there are trickle-down effects that are going to be so very critical for the other members of our Wilson County Schools staff.”

“I was hoping that we would not be having to face this issue, but it is here,” Fitch said.

Superintendent Lane Mills said since Friday, the schools have had an acceleration of projected absences that would have resulted in a need for at least 120 substitutes for absent teachers, and there would still be a gap.

“Our concern is that gap is a safety issue in terms of covering the classrooms and having school that day,” Mills said.

Mercer made the motion to keep students at home Wednesday “in order to maintain our children in a safe environment.”

Both Farmer and Fitch said the notion of having schools with a skeleton staff was “scary.”

In voting for the teacher work day for Wednesday, the school board made it clear that the school nutrition programs would still continue for school students in elementary, middle and high schools. Those students will be served meals from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at six elementary schools, including Winstead, Elm City, Vick, Hearne, Wells and Barnes.

Parents who would ordinarily use child care at schools during teacher workdays will still be able to continue that service on Wednesday.

The closure will not require a makeup day since Wilson County Schools has enough instructional days built into the calendar, district spokeswoman Amber Lynch said.

Marchers will gather Wednesday in Raleigh at the NCAE’s 700 Salisbury St. headquarters at 9:45 a.m. and begin marching to the North Carolina legislative building at 10 a.m., which should take about 25 minutes.

Participants plan to enter the legislative building at 10:45 a.m. and start assembling on the third floor.

The General Assembly convenes at noon and the NCAE march organizers want their members in the galleries at that time.

At 3 p.m., participants will begin assembling in the Bicentennial Plaza across from the legislative building where the Rally for Respect will begin at 3:30 p.m. The rally is expected to last about an hour.