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Norwich parents lash out remotely during virtual school board meeting

Norwich — Parents expressed anger and frustration throughout Tuesday’s Facebook Live Board of Education meeting, using the chat section to address student misbehavior, staff shortages, masks and that the meeting was not held in person.

Although the board has held some recent meetings in person, Tuesday’s was off limits to the public, with the board seated in the Community Room at Kelly Middle School. The only public comments were written submissions in advance or typed during the brief public comment period.

Even those submissions did not satisfy participants, as board Chairwoman Heather Romanski prefaced that any comments naming specific staff members would not be read aloud. And the board does not discuss issues with commenters.

But the chat session remained open throughout the meeting, and several parents continued to voice their objections to the remote meeting and that the board did not address the issues of staffing and student misbehavior directly.

During her report to the board, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow outlined what she called “student transition challenges” with full in-person learning returning for the first time in over a year for some students. She highlighted that many students have experienced trauma at home, with family illnesses or deaths. They have fallen behind academically and have been isolated socially from friends and teachers.

The school district has hired behavioral specialists, and staff has undergone training in social and emotional learning to try to address students’ needs, Stringfellow said.

She said many children in preschool, kindergarten and even first grade have not yet been toilet trained.

“Our staff are working extraordinarily hard to ease the transition challenges,” Stringfellow told the Board of Education.

In another section of her report, Stringfellow said the school district is experiencing staff shortages in many areas, including middle school math, science and language arts teachers, special education teachers, paraeducators and substitute teachers.

Stringfellow reported that 26 school staff remain unvaccinated and must do the state-mandated COVID-19 testing.

Parents described some of their own experiences in schools and on buses.

Parent Kristina Cramer asked the board to address “the violence taking place on the buses.” She said her daughter’s bus driver told her the child suffered a panic attack “due to the violence.”

Parent Christine Carter had relayed information to The Day last week about an alleged student assault on a behavioral therapist at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School. She had sent a lengthy email for public comment, but it was not read aloud because it mentioned specific school staff.

In her email, Carter asked the board to terminate Stringfellow’s contract and address the violence in the schools. “What will it take for you to represent those citizens that voted for you, by terminating her contract?” her email stated.

In her chat session comment, Carter wrote: “I would like to demand a vote of no confidence regarding Kristen Stringfellow.” Board Chairwoman Romanski read the comment but said the board would not discuss specific staff members.

Other parents objected to the remote access meeting they said stifled discussion. They complained that students are in school in crowded classrooms, and sports are open and allow spectators. Some complained that some board members were not wearing masks. Parent Tammy Stott asked for statistics on which school districts are holding in-person meetings.

Stringfellow invited parents to attend parent coffee hours with the superintendent. These sessions also are being held online, the next one at 5 p.m. Oct. 27 via Zoom.

Parents repeatedly complained that the school board was spending time on what they considered trivial matters, while ignoring the parents' concerns.

“These people sit here and preach and reassure they care about our teachers and students,” parent Heather Toonstra wrote, “yet look at all these comments. Look at the teacher shortage. Look at what’s happening in our classrooms!!! We need change and we need it NOW!”

c.bessette@theday.com

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