ST. THOMAS– The Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, convened in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative hall to receive testimony from the Virgin Islands Board of Education and Department of Education regarding an update on School Year 2020-2021 Reopening of Schools Plan, School Readiness, and an update on the CARES Act funding.
Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin of the VI Department of Education (VIDE) gave testimony virtually, noting the Department’s flexible plan that allows the VIDE to move effortlessly between all three phases of the Department of Health’s (DOH) Reopening of Schools Guidance, which includes 100% in-person leaning, 100% virtual learning, or a hybrid of in-person and at-home learning. Currently, the plan is structured on Phase Yellow—a hybrid of in-person and at-home learning, and Phase Red—the learning model that is 100% virtual or at home.
“Given the current status of the virus in the territory, with cases steadily on the rise, both agencies have agreed that the VIDE should begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students learning from home. There will be no in-person instruction during the 1st Semester at VI public schools, from September 2020 to December 2020. DOH strongly recommends the VIDE adopt the fully virtual model to start the school year due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, and concerns expressed by local pediatricians and other local medical professionals,” stated Commissioner Berry-Benjamin. If the Territory’s COVID-19 cases decline significantly, VIDE expects reintroducing in-person instruction for the 2nd Semester, which begins January 2021.
“These factors are not unique to the Virgin Islands, for the same issues are being discussed by boards of education and school districts around the world,” stated Chairwoman Arah C. Lockhart of the Virgin Islands Board of Education. The board outlined several concerns that led to their reconsideration of students returning to the classrooms for the 2020-2021 school year. “Having all students learn from home for the first marking period can provide opportunities for the Department to make preparations for health and safety and address repairs and maintenance” said Lockhart.
On June 22, 2020, VIDE was awarded $19,992,337 in CARES Act Funds to aid in their response to COVID-19. However, the GVI’s MUNIS financial system were closed from June 22, 2020 through July 12, 2020, which delayed the uploading and processing of the CARES Act budget by three weeks. The system was reopened on July 13, 2020, and budgets went through the internal approval process and posted on July 25th. The funds became available for programs to procure necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), technology, contracts, and administrative support.
“Information during this time requires more collaboration and consideration between VIDE, the board, the school administration, faculty staff and the union” urged Frett-Gregory. The Committee was informed that physical school buildings, custodial workers and cleaning contracts will be utilized in both districts. Regular scheduled maintenance, such as the cleaning of grease traps, exterminating, the waxing of floors, cutting of grass, and janitorial services have begun. “Some tasks are executed on a monthly basis and others are scheduled to be completed the last week in August. Although students will be learning from home, cleaning, trainings, and other maintenance work will continue as scheduled,” said Berry-Benjamin.
The allocation of CARES funding is as follows: Per U.S. Department of Education guidance, 90% ($17,993,103.30) of the funds were allocated to the Local Education Agencies (LEA-St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix); 10% ($1,999,233.70) of the funds were allocated to the SEA (State Education Agency).
Before concluding the meeting, members present requested the following information from the testifiers through Chairwoman Frett-Gregory:
-an itemized breakdown of all listed CARES ACT funds allocated for both districts listing fringe benefits for new positions, supplies, contractual services, equipment and indirect costs and list of all new position titles related thereto.
-the projected plan for a typical school day of virtual learning for students in the territory, including ESL, Alternative & Special Education students.
Chairwoman Frett-Gregory thanked the community, her staff, colleagues and testifiers for their patience and will hold a follow up hearing on these matters before the 2020-2021 school year begins.
Committee Members present during today’s hearing: Chairwoman Donna Frett-Gregory, Senators Kurt Vialet, Allison DeGazon, Kenneth Gittens and Janelle Sarauw. Non-Committee members present: Novelle Francis Jr., Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, Oakland Benta, Marvin Blyden, and Javan James Sr.