With his arguments stacked and compiled, V.I. Board of Education Chairman Kyza Callwood rattled off dozens of concerns Monday about the announcement that public schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands will reopen.
Callwood testified during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development.
Committee members shared the board’s concerns, which included a slew of environmental issues; the consolidation of school sites; camera, intercom, and telephone systems that don’t operate; inadequate lighting; and heaps of safety issues.
But Callwood’s concern also centered on the perception that the Department of Education had usurped the Board of Education’s authority.
“The code is clear in terms of the board has the sole authority to approve the reopening of schools,” Callwood said. “If in fact, when we do our walkthroughs if that is not the case, then the date would just be pushed back. But the board is not trying to hold anybody hostage … Hopefully when we do our walk through everything is together.”
The two educational entities are to meet July 19 at which time, Callwood said, the board would go over all concerns before doing a final walk-through later this month.
“We provide the department a list of concerns that need to be addressed. Some concerns are really far-reaching and can’t be addressed timely. However, ensuring that it is environmentally sound, safe and secure is of the utmost importance and concern to the board when it comes to approval,” Callwood said.
In the interim, a plan for the reopening of schools was expected by the board and the committee, but both senators and Callwood said no such document has ever been received from the Department of Education.
In an attempt to gain a more complete understanding of the USVI public schools’ ability to re-open for face-to-face instruction in early August, Sen. Genevieve Whitaker said she approached V.I. Department of Education Commissioner Raquel Berry-Benjamin asking to schedule a site visit. But Whitaker said the commissioner provided dates too close to the scheduled reopening, July 26 and 28.
“Myself and other committee members take issue with that because as school reopens on Aug. 9, that gives even less time for any real oversight.”
Highlighting several of the concerns already mentioned by Callwood, Whitaker presented photographs to the committee of various St. Croix schools slated to open. The images showed deteriorating walls, exposed wiring and plumbing, and various other maintenance issues. (Some of these images appear below.)
Of the 34 schools under the department’s purview, St. Croix Educational Complex is one of five considered to be in fair condition. All other school structures have been classified by the department to be under “rapid deterioration” or in need of “replacement.”
Berry-Benjamin acknowledged schools needed carpentry, electrical, plumbing, painting, and structural work, but she told the committee there were “various projects that are being performed territorywide.”
“The cleaning of all air conditioner filters and their replacement with the new HEPA filters when available will be installed. The districts have teams that are addressing all units to ensure that all units are cleaned and serviced properly. All bathrooms throughout the campuses have been assessed. Missing or inoperable fixtures will be replaced. The goal is to eventually swap out all faucets with hands-free ones,” Berry-Benjamin said.
But for these tasks to be accomplished Berry-Benjamin said several things must happen first.
“First, the water pressure levels have to be improved and proper filtration devices have to be installed. If we don’t install the filtration what will happen is that particles will get caught up and will eventually prevent the fixtures from functioning properly,” Berry-Benjamin said. “Purifiers have been procured for all classrooms. They are expected to be on island by mid-July and will simply have to be plugged in. This will help to keep the air circulating and purified daily. Handwashing stations and bottle fill stations are in the territory and are being installed.”
Legislators and Callwood did not appear convinced the department would be ready to reopen the territory’s schools come Aug. 9, as not only would several maintenance issues have to be cleared up, but also all pandemic-related protocols put in place.
Convinced or not, the department has announced schools will resume, though not all students will return to their accustomed structures. Arthur Richards kindergarten through sixth-grade students will attend Eulalie Rivera K-8 School, while Arthur Richards seventh and eight-grade students will attend John H. Woodson Jr. High, and Claude O. Markoe Elementary sixth-graders promoted to seventh grade last school year will attend John H. Woodson Jr. High School.
Berry-Benjamin said Lew Muckle Elementary School is the new site of Granny Preschool in the St. Croix District and Joseph Sibilly Monroe Annex is the site of Sugarapple Preschool in the St. Thomas-St. John District. And Charlotte Amalie High School’s 9th-grade class will be housed in the Charlotte Amalie High School Annex, formerly known as the Raphael O. Wheatley Skill Center.
Sens. Whitaker, Janelle Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory, Kurt Vialet, Kenneth Gittens, Milton Potter, and Carla Joseph were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members also attended the hearing.