Chesterfield school board addresses critical race theory, LGBTQ+

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On June 1, the Chesterfield County Public Schools board addressed several controversial topics, including critical race theory, gender identity and masks.

Board Chair Ryan Harter (Matoaca) said critical race theory is not being taught in Chesterfield.

The board unanimously approved a resolution recognizing June as LGBTQ+ pride month. They also approved the first reading of a new policy that requires school staff to, at the request of a student or parent, address the student using their asserted name and pronoun that corresponds with their gender identity. Final approval of the policy is scheduled for the board’s next meeting.

The new policy also requires public schools to allow access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to a student’s gender identity.

“State law requires this model policy,” school spokesman Shawn Smith said, referring to Policy 1015.

During public comment, several parents and two girls addressed the board during public comment and asked they not be required to wear masks for the rest of the year or in the fall.

Critical race theory

On the topic of critical race theory, which according to edweek.org is the idea that racism is a social construct — and not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice — and is embedded in legal systems and policies.

“Critical race theory is not supported by members of this board,” Harter said. “In Chesterfield, our goal is unity, not division.” He added that CRT is not part of Virginia’s approved curriculum, which Chesterfield follows.

Several states have passed laws this year banning the teaching of critical race theory or similar ideas in public schools, including Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa and Tennessee. The state education board in Florida also banned it, as did Montana’s attorney general.

Kathryn Haines (Midlothian) said she consulted a conservative friend who gave her a crash course in critical race theory. He said it’s not being taught in any K-12 public schools in the U.S., Haines said.

“The social media narrative … misses the underlying need to engage in a discussion about how to think critically about the mistakes of the past,” Haines said.

During public comment, Mika’il Petin said he is a diversity, equity and inclusion professional. “I believe critical race theory is for everyone,” he said.

Inclusive wording

The board adopted amendments to multiple existing policies that remove the term “his/her” in favor of individual, parent and service member, for example. Those changes — without discussion — went into effect immediately.

During public comment, Jason Melendez thanked the board for passing the first reading of Policy 1015 for better inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other students.

In Loudoun County recently, elementary teacher Byron “Tanner” Cross was suspended but reinstated by a circuit court judge after he said he would not refer to transgender students by their chosen pronouns. The school district appealed Judge Jim Plowman Jr.’s ruling to the state supreme court.

Cross said he would “not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl, and vice-versa” and cited his Christian faith, according to reports. Cross said he would instead refer to a child by their desired name.

In 2018, Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School, was fired for not using a transgendered student’s preferred pronoun. He subsequently sued the school district. In his lawsuit, Vlaming says his rights to speak freely and exercise his religion were violated. The suit states that Vlaming “sincerely believes that referring to a female as a male by using an objectively male pronoun is telling a lie,” according to the guardian.com. Among the remedies sought by Vlaming are $1 million in damages, reinstatement to his job and a declaration that his rights were violated.

Masks?

During public comment, Heather Mitchell demanded that the school board remove its mask mandate for students immediately. “Chesterfield County denied my daughter’s religious exemption and medical exemption,” she said. Mitchell said she was serving the board with her complaint and giving them three days to comply before going to arbitration.

“Science evolves and so should our school district,” parent Amber Tischio said.

Marielle Smith, 10, said masks should be abolished. “It restricts me from breathing, and it doesn’t even work,” she said. “Kids are different. The younger they are, the more sticky and sweaty they get … By the end of the day, it becomes a sticky, wet cloth and feels like waterboarding, which is illegal in the U.S.”

“The fear we are creating in our children is far more damaging than the virus itself,” said Taryn Brennan, who said she is a mother to three CCPS students. “Children are not super spreaders.”

Afterward, board member Debbie Bailey (Dale) gave “tremendous praise” for the two girls who spoke, which she said took tremendous courage.

Bailey said she agreed that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) “has failed our children… but we are obligated to follow his executive order.”

“We didn’t wear masks in our work session” earlier on June 1, she said, but were then informed by the department of labor that they had to wear them even though they were all vaccinated. “Parents should decide whether their children wear a mask or not,” Bailey said. “I feel completely stymied, and it’s frustrating.”

One parent said parent volunteers were told they could return to schools as long as they are vaccinated.

Harter said there is no mandate for students and staff to be vaccinated, adding that “the county makes the decision” about buildings in after-school hours.

American Rescue Plan Act

In other news, Robert Meister, the school district’s chief financial officer, updated the board on $51.4 million in the latest iteration of the American Rescue Plan Act funds, or Esser III. Some $39.2 million will go for instruction and $6.6 million for operations and maintenance, the two largest funding areas. Some $3.5 million will be used on technology and $1.3 million on transportation.

Regarding full-time substitute teachers, Haines said that after the funding runs out, the district will “have to figure out how to get this into our budget.”

In addition, Bailey wondered what they will do to pay for translators “when we fall off this cliff.”

Superintendent Merv Daugherty said the federal funding is “not a long-term solution. It’s a short-term solution to make sure we have the data to make it a long-term solution.”

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