The fall semester for public schools starts in early August, and the 34th Legislature Committee on Education and Workforce Development called a hearing to look at school readiness. Testifiers appearing on-site and virtually, on screen, shared assessments and reports based on their own inspections and discoveries.
Officials from the Board of Education, Health Department, and the Fire Service appeared before the committee, chaired by St. Croix Sen. Genevieve Whitaker. But no one from the primary agency the committee sought out — the Education Department — came.
Committee member and Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory said she was frustrated by the many times that key witnesses failed to show up over the issue of school readiness. Chief among her frustrations is school maintenance or the lack thereof.
Testifiers who did appear, however, did share updates on their efforts to get schools ready to open their doors for the start of the fall semester.
Board of Education Chairman Kyza Callwood spoke for close to an hour about visits he and others from the board made to schools in the St. Thomas-St. John and the St. Croix districts. Extensive details offered included maintenance and repairs of buildings, fire safety, staffing and vacancies, and whether the number of students in a classroom should drop because of a smaller overall enrollment.
Assistant Health Commissioner Nicole Craigwell-Syms told Education committee members about inspections conducted by the department’s Division of Environmental Health. Syms said the inspectors’ focus was health and safety conditions in public school kitchens.
And Deputy Fire Service Assistant Director Antonio Stevens gave a progress report on fire safety preparedness. St. Thomas district Sen. Carla Joseph expressed concern about the number of schools that Fire did not have safety reports for, but Stevens said inspections are still in progress.
There also appeared to be some confusion about the number of fire safety inspection reports received by the Board of Education.
Stevens said the reports sent to the board for the St. Croix district covered every school but one — Lew Muckle Elementary. He added that safety reports from the St. Thomas-St. John district included Lockhart Elementary, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, Joseph Gomez Elementary, Charlotte Amalie High School, Ulla Muller Elementary, Jane E. Tuitt Elementary, Joseph Sibilly Elementary, and Betha C. Boschulte Middle School.
Whitaker asked if an inspection was conducted for Ivanna Eudora Kean High School.
Lawmakers also said that while the Board of Education, Environmental Health, and the Fire Service shared their assessments on school readiness, there were two other agencies that did not. The Departments of Public Works and Planning and Natural Resources — like Education — failed to participate in the hearing or turn over inspection reports.
Committee member and Sen. Milton Potter asked Callwood what detail in the Board of Education report stood out to him. “School safety and security was the area,” the chairman said.
Like other senators at the Friday hearing, Potter expressed disappointment with the Education Department. “If I was grading the Department of Education on our schools … the grade would not be a good one. It would be a ‘D’ at best, and that’s something that should concern all of us,” he said.
But the education board’s executive director suggested that signs of improvement were starting to appear. “Safety and security has always been a concern for us at the Board of Education,” said Director Stephanie Berry, adding that she was glad to see the department starting to take safety in the public schools seriously.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw asked testifiers from the education board if there had been any changes in the school grading system. She also asked what board officials had learned about helping students who fell behind in their studies over the past few years.
“I don’t see a plan to address the learning loss,” Sarauw said.