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Nashville school board chair under fire after Caribbean vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 1/20/2021 Meghan Mangrum, Nashville Tennessean
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As Nashville middle and high school students sat learning remotely from home last November, a Metro Nashville school board member took a trip to the Caribbean — and some parents aren't happy about it.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which are currently closed for in-person learning, only reopened in-person briefly last fall for elementary students amid the coronavirus pandemic. Middle and high school students in Nashville haven't seen the inside of a classroom building since the pandemic first shuttered schools in the spring of 2020.

a person looking at a laptop: Nashville School Board Vice Chair Christiane Buggs speaks about the termination of the contract of director Shawn Joseph during the MNPS Board of Public Education meeting at the Administration Building of Metropolitan Public Schools in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, April 9, 2019. © Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean Nashville School Board Vice Chair Christiane Buggs speaks about the termination of the contract of director Shawn Joseph during the MNPS Board of Public Education meeting at the Administration Building of Metropolitan Public Schools in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, April 9, 2019.

But board chair Christiane Buggs, who was re-elected last year to represent the city's downtown district on the school board in November, took an international vacation last fall that some are calling inappropriate.

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Many parents have been calling on the district to reopen for in-person learning, despite the city's ongoing struggles with slowing the spread of the coronavirus. About 56% of parents prefer in-person learning, according to data collected by the district last fall.

RELATED: Nashville, Memphis school leaders fire back as lawmakers target districts that have remained virtual

The parents who are now raising concerns are asking Buggs why she was traveling or frequenting restaurants while schools are closed. Some argue that restaurants and bars should have waited to reopen until after schools did, if the city was truly committed to getting students back in the classroom. 

"In her communications with parents as seen on her public Twitter account and her now-private Instagram page, Ms. Buggs has repeatedly called for the Nashville community to follow public health guidelines such as masking and limiting gatherings and travel so that Covid numbers in our community can improve and our children’s schools can reopen," Lauren Herring, a Metro Schools parent, said by email. 

Herring said Buggs' actions and international travel "display hypocrisy and elitism, both very undesirable qualities in a public servant."

Let Nashville Parents Choose, a coalition of Middle Tennessee parents advocating for schools to reopen in-person, said in a statement the group is "troubled and perplexed by the seeming contradiction that we see all around us."

"If it is unsafe to operate schools, why then has MNPS contracted with the YMCA to run childcare programs inside of school buildings? We believe that if this is safe then school is also safe," the group said in the statement. "And why has the Chair of the MNPS Board of Education, an individual who has excoriated the public to follow public health rules, and who has said it's not worth any risk to open schools, felt safe enough to host events at bars, patronize businesses that violate the county mask mandate, and travel internationally?  Surely, if it is safe enough to do these things, it is safe enough to open schools."

But Buggs, who said she believes in being "as transparent as possible," said the issue only being raised now is "an unfortunate distraction."

"I empathize with the frustrations of parents over this pandemic and the resulting impact on their children. As Board Chair, I’ve been working with Dr. Battle to ensure we are meeting the many needs of our students while prioritizing a return to classrooms when the metrics are safe. I made the decision in September to resume in-person meetings and to offer time for public comment because it was important that we hear from the parents and staff that we serve in MNPS," Buggs said in a statement.

"Taking personal events in my life that occurred nearly three months ago when our youngest learners were already back in classrooms is an unfortunate distraction from the issues and challenges we face today. Though I appreciate being held accountable for my actions, I followed safety protocols to the greatest extent possible and my activities were well within the guidelines adopted by the city."

MORE: Why there's still no timeline for when Metro Nashville Public Schools students will return to the classroom

Metro Nashville school board members haven't technically moved to reopen or close schools.

Instead, that decision is left to Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and her team, through a proposed bill currently in front of state lawmakers would grant local school boards, and the governor, the authority to close or reopen schools in the case of an emergency.

Board members have also mostly been supportive of Battle's plans.

Fielding dozens of emails, calls, and messages daily from parents — some advocating for schools to reopen and others expressing concerns with the district's remote learning — most Metro Schools board members have said they think the district has been making the right decisions. 

Only board member Fran Bush has been critical of the district's decision, siding with parents who are calling for schools to reopen and even publicly criticizing fellow board members and Battle.

In August, Bush helped organize a rally outside the district's Bransford Avenue administrative offices to raise awareness of the struggles of virtual learning and call for students to return to the classroom. 

Some parents, who belong to Let Nashville Parents Choose, a coalition launched this summer, have threatened to try and recall Buggs from her position— a move they also initiated with board member Gini Pupo-Walker last year.

Emboldened by pressure from Gov. Bill Lee after making remarks opening a special legislative session focused on education Tuesday, parents critical of Buggs alleged "hypocrisy" and are putting more pressure on the district.

Herring characterizes Metro Schools remaining closed as a "failure of leadership." 

"Many in the Nashville community are desperate for their children to attend in-person school.  School systems both large and small across our country have been able to open their buildings to in-person learners and teachers by finding solutions to the problems presented by COVID," she said in an email. "The genuine stubbornness of the MNPS School Board to explore their own solutions to these problems is a failure of leadership."

Let Nashville Parents Choose also ask the school board to work to get students back in the classroom.

"We bear no animus towards Mayor Cooper or Chair Buggs.  It is noteworthy and newsworthy any time public officials do not practice what they preach," Let Nashville Parents Choose said.  "They are entitled to live their lives and make the best choices for themselves and their families. We just ask that they work urgently to give other Nashville families the choices we need to stay whole during this pandemic, most importantly the resumption of in-person school."

In addition to Lee, lawmakers are also putting pressure on Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person learning.

Legislation proposed this week even requires schools to conduct student testing in-person later this spring and other legislation ties in-person learning to state funding.

Whetherparents will actually move to recall Buggs is unknown, but for now, she said she believes the focus should be on the entire community doing its part to help end the pandemic.

"We can all do better at doing our part to slow and stop this pandemic, and I will certainly work to do that in my personal and public life," Buggs said.

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Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at mmangrum@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville school board chair under fire after Caribbean vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic

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