ST. CROIX – Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, led by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker met in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. The Committee received testimony regarding the status for the reopening of public schools for the 2022-2023 school year, specifically the school accountability report addressing the safety, health administration, maintenance, and overall operations of schools, as outlined in the Virgin Islands Code.
However, officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Education, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and the Department of Labor were unavailable to testify. Via submitted correspondence, Victor Somme III, the Acting Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education was unavailable, due to a pressing medical issue which had to be attended to outside of the territory. In the letter, Somme explained that other key staff at the Department of Education were also unavailable. Jean-Pierre Oriol, the Commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, was also unavailable due to previously scheduled meetings that prevented his attendance. Gary Molloy, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor, in his letter, stated that he did not attend due to previously scheduled off-island commitments. Derek Gabriel, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works was also unavailable due to scheduling conflicts.
Dr. Kyza A. Callwood, chairman of the VI Board of Education delivered testimony. The Board of Education created the 2021-2022 school year to provide all Virgin Islands stakeholders with critical data about the infrastructure of the Virgin Islands Public School system, known as the School Management Accountability Report (SMAR). The SMAR is not a report on the state of public education. It is an assessment based on available data concerning the territoryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s public schools. According to Callwood, the Board of Education voiced several concerns. Among them included the amount of time it took to communicate with the Department of Education, a lack of a funding resource for maintenance, lack of reports for water and air testing, the consolidation of school sites to house many students, no specific plans for maintenance, as well as inadequate staffing for maintenance. There were also several concerns over general security at the campuses, including lack of school intercoms, nonoperational school cameras, limited school drill practices, especially for active shooter lock downs and earthquakes, and an inadequate amount of school monitors.
Dr. Nicole Craigwell-Syms, the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Health delivered testimony regarding the school accountability report addressing the safety, health administration, maintenance, and overall operations of the territoryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s schools. According to Craigwell-Syms, the Division of Environmental Health conducts yearly inspections at the Department of EducationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s School Lunch Program. The inspections ensure the safe consumption of food served to students and act as an intervention to outbreaks. The Department of Health and the Department of Education share responsibility to make sure that the food is safe and making sure it does not become a vehicle in disease outbreaks or the transmission of communicable disease. It also extends to making sure that food is pure and prepared in a clean environment. Inspections must align with FDA food code as written to ensure that the cafeteria or feeding area is clean and safe. The Department of Health maintains strong recommendations prior to the reopening of public schools. This includes but is not limited to the proper cleaning and sanitization of school buildings and facilities, the functionality of school restrooms, the maintaining of proper PPE and soap for emergency use, plans for managing sick employees, students, and staff members.
Antonio Stevens, the Assistant Director of Fire for the Virgin Islands Fire and Emergency Medical Services (VIFEMS) provided testimony. Per StevensÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ testimony, VIFEMS conducted fire and life safety inspections at school facilities in the US Virgin Islands and submitted reports with their findings. These inspections were conducted in accordance with Title 23, Chapter 9 of Virgin Islands Code, which establishes the territoryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fire prevention code and National Fire Protection Agency codes adapted by VIFEMS. Apart from arson, major causes of school fires include the improper handling and storage of flammable liquids, overloaded electrical outlets, and excessive total combustible materials. During a fire safety inspection, major concerns of the inspector are inclusive of general housekeeping, the storage of flammable materials, the servicing of fire extinguishers, the installation and operability of emergency lights, the frequency of emergency drills, and the maintenance of exits.
Senator Whitaker asked about how the Board of Education was working on the curriculum that was required by law. Stephanie Berry, the Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Board of Education stated that the curriculum was currently being revised throughout all grades.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory voiced frustration at the hearing. She said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“We like to hear ourselves talkÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ We have not gotten any further.Ã¢â‚¬Â These are the same questions over and overÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is hypocritical. It is time for us to change the narrative.Ã¢â‚¬Â Frett-Gregory mentioned her own proposed legislation which would have created a Bureau of School Construction and Maintenance, ultimately it failed in Committee. According to a study mentioned by Frett-Gregory, it would take at least $1.5 Billion to have schools in the territory properly maintained.
Senators present at todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s committee meeting included Genevieve R. Whitaker, Janelle K. Sarauw, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.