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Tom Scanlan: School board meetings need more dialogue, less division | COMMENTARY

I spent the best part of 33 years as a classroom teacher here in Carroll County, and I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in that time. I was around when teachers went seven years without a raise. We survived the controversy over Common Core. The past year and a half has been even tougher for my former colleagues, navigating distance learning and trying to stay safe in their schools. There has been some good news, however. By all accounts the summer recovery program was successful. More than 4,000 students participated, and the number of failing students declined. Also, Carroll County Public Schools and the Carroll County Education Association reached a contract agreement, with modest salary increases for educators. Negotiations should not have gone to impasse, and there was no reason for CCPS to waste tax dollars on a mediator when good faith negotiations would have come to basically the same agreement. But at least an agreement was reached, which is a good thing.

What truly concerns me is how the Board of Education meetings have devolved into the politics of division. Educators worked harder than ever last year, yet they were vilified by some members of the public for wanting their schools to be safe environments. The controversy over safety has become embroiled in the debate over wearing masks in school. The CCPS website lists the school system’s seven Core Values. “A Safe and Orderly Learning Environment” is one of them. Superintendent Steven Lockard and Health Officer Ed Singer requested masks be worn in schools. Every other surrounding county is requiring masks, as are most of our surrounding states, including Pennsylvania. The State Board of Education votes on a statewide mandate on Sept. 14. I do not understand the political posturing when faced with the reality of rising COVID cases in the county. Nobody likes wearing a mask, and masks are not perfect. There are no guarantees, but we know they are an effective mitigation strategy, especially when social distancing is virtually impossible in a school.

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One shining star at the BOE meetings is student representative Devanshi Mistry. During her tenure on the board, I have watched her grow in confidence. She researches the issues, gets feedback from fellow students, and then articulates the student viewpoint forcefully. Yet time and time again, her opinions are dismissed, her comments ignored. Her request to be a nonvoting member of the new curriculum and instruction committee was denied. Only board member Patricia Dorsey supported Mistry’s appointment to the committee. At the most recent meeting she spoke eloquently in favor of the mask mandate. She pointed out that with masks fewer students would be quarantined for shorter periods of time. In other words, more students will be in school with masks than without them. Did anyone besides Dorsey listen?

I remember when our neighborhood schools were community centers where families came together. PTOs and boosters were the norm for parents uniting to build a strong school. Ultimately that’s what we all want — we want the schools our kids attend to be the best they can be. We don’t need shouting and protests and finger pointing. We need dialogue when we disagree. For example, are the concepts of equality and equity mutually exclusive? Equality is when everyone is treated the same in “status, rights, and opportunities.” Equity is being “fair and impartial.” There is no ideological line in the sand dividing these two ideals. Don’t we all want both for ourselves and our children?

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In closing, I would like to revisit two more of the Core Values of CCPS. “Community Participation” is how our neighborhood schools grow into the cornerstones of their community. Families work together for the common good of their kids. That is what neighborhood schools have always been about. And finally, “Fairness, Honesty, and Respect” are the values that help us get there. The Golden Rule is as relevant today as it has ever been. When we treat others the way we want to be treated, we all benefit. Instead of marginalizing the people with whom we disagree, maybe we could listen to them.

Tom Scanlan writes from Westminster.

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