Through multiple rounds of applause, a good number of cheers and jeers, and an occasional pounding of the gavel, the Williamson County Board of Education got back to in-person business Monday night.
That is, for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 virus some 14 months ago, the school board held its regular monthly meeting inside the auditorium of the Williamson County Administrative Complex. Williamson County Schools Superintendent Jason Golden, board members and district staff were greeted by a packed room of parents with a wide range of concerns or shows of support.
“We always welcome public comment, and we extended it last night so that all speakers could have their say,” said Nancy Garrett, who represents the 12th District and is chair of the board. “Public comment is important. It’s important to the work we do.”
Thirty-five of the attendees took up the first hour of the meeting speaking their mind, some quite critical of the board and district and others voicing approval of measures that have been taken over the past year.
Some showed concern about the COVID-19 vaccine that is expected to be available for children ages 2-11 in late summer and has recently had approval for those ages 12-15. Judging from what some of the speakers said, there’s a perception that WCS will be administering the vaccine at its various schools and that it will be mandatory.
“I’m seriously concerned that the school board would even consider this vaccine issue,” Liz Custer of Franklin said. “This vaccine is experimental. Children are not experiments, they’re not lab rats. We cannot experiment on our children. There are treatments for this disease. They’re not being publicized, but they’re out there. They’re very effective. This vaccine is an experiment and has no place in our school system.”
In his superintendent’s report later in the meeting, Golden attempted to quash the notions that WCS students will be required to take the vaccine before the next school year and that those shots will be delivered in the schools.
“We are not administering a vaccine to any of our students,” Golden said. … “We did an analysis of the community and found there were actually 44 sites available to get the vaccine, so we determined there’s no need for us to provide the vaccines over the summer to our students.
“Also,” he continued, “we have not required anyone to take the vaccine and never even implied that we require anyone to take the vaccine. We have not received anything from the [Tennessee Department of Health] indicating that we should require it or that we should do anything with respect to students under the age of 18 making their own decisions.
“From our perspective, those issues are optional. We made them optional for our staff, and they’re optional for our students. We have no intention of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The issue of the mask mandate implemented last July for the current school year was also on the minds of some in the audience.
Jim Bicknell of Spring Hill said he appreciated the board’s “waking us parents up, for overplaying your hand with the mask and waking up a sleeping giant. I know that you think that by getting rid of the mask mandate you have no authority to give, that we’ll just go away and leave you alone. But I’m here to tell you, we’re just getting started.”
The mandate ends Friday, the last half-day of 2020-21, and Golden has said it won’t be renewed for the summer or the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“We set the goal of being on campus this year if we could safely do so, and we grew and grew over the course of the year,” Golden said. “And masks were a part of that. … We determined that when we finish school the need [for masks] will be gone. I recognize that was not soon enough for some, but it was a little too early for others.”
Not surprisingly, Monday’s meeting also included commentary on critical race theory and whether, as some implied, it has already seeped into the curriculum of WCS. Concerns over CRT — a concept that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the United States — have been around for some time, but perhaps have heightened since the school board approved the hiring of a consultant, Fostering Healthy Solutions, to help the district to address diversity and cultural sensitivity issues.
“They are not writing curriculum,” Golden said of the founders of FHS, Anita Foster-Horne and her son, Shan Foster. “They made it clear and we made it clear they are not promoting critical race theory.”
Kristen Jackson of Nolensville begged to differ. She has two children she pulled from WCS to homeschool, and said she’d like to have them return as long as CRT is not part of the curriculum.
“Critical race theory identifies individuals as either oppressors or oppressed,” she said. “Bullies are bullies. In critical race theory, one is an oppressor, a bully, not based on behavior but on gender or race. It teaches our children that they are either born a bully or a victim of bullying.
“It allows no room for actions that speak louder than color or gender. It forces our children to believe they are either good or bad. This is not the way forward. The way forward is to teach our children that they can do better than their ancestors regardless of their ancestral roots.”
The speakers lineup also included a number of parents giving thumbs up for the board’s decision to hire Fostering Healthy Solutions, which will have one more listen-and-learn session June 4-5 and will end the first phase of consulting work by July.
Revida Rahman, a Black parent in Brentwood, said the work of FHS is critical.
“If your child has never experienced racism, good for you,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it does not exist and it does not occur daily for some students. Our students have the right to a safe learning environment, too.
“I’m not concerned about what name is given to it; I’m more concerned with the actions taken to ensure other children aren’t tormenting our kids based on race, sexuality or a host of other things. If you aren’t empathetic to children being harmed by racism, please stop trying to prevent action. We have to do something and the time to act is now.”
Click here to view the meeting.