With nearly an hour of public comments during its May 17 meeting, Williamson County Schools' first in-person board of education meeting in more than a year had a packed house.

Nearly three dozen parents and community members signed up to speak about two highly discussed issues in recent months: COVID-19 and the board's response to reported racism in schools.

During the meeting, Nancy Garrett, board chair and District 12 representative, had to call for order several times as the crowd booed and cheered individual speakers.

Diversity efforts

Several parents signed up to speak in support of the district's hiring of Fostering Healthy Solutions, a third-party consultant group which aims to help the district analyze its existing training for staff and teachers around diversity and inclusion. In February, the district signed a $55,000 contract with the company for this purpose.

A new parent group, One WilCo, has been working to show its support for the board's efforts to help provide more training in schools after months of reported incidents of racism. The group gathered with signs of support prior to the meeting at the county's administration building.

"We are wanting to make sure that [the board] understands that we want this to remain a priority for the district," Co-founder Revida Rahman said. "What has gotten me to come is the opposition and to show that there are people here who recognize that these things are happening in the school system and we care about what's going to be done about it, so we're hoping the board continues to support the [diversity, equity and inclusion efforts]."

However, a number of parents questioned the district's intentions, citing recent concerns nationwide about Critical Race Theory. CRT is an academic approach that challenges the law and practices in regard to race and social justice, according to Middle Tennessee State University's Free Speech Center.

Superintendent Jason Golden said the group was never intended to, and will not, change student curriculum. Additionally, he said the work that FHS was hired to do is definitively not promoting CRT curriculum.

"We have heard from our families about both needs and fears about where we're going, and we've spoken of this for many months," he said. "We are driving our work with our community's needs. We don't have a national agenda—we are working to serve our students and help our students be safe, and that takes attention as well, so I appreciate the comments that others have made about that."

Golden added that FHS is holding listen-and-learn sessions over the coming weeks to talk with parents about its work. The next sessions will be held virtually June 4-5.

COVID-19 concerns

Another concern many parents spoke of was the remaining COVID-19 protocols in place. Although the district aims to make face masks optional during summer programs and potentially during the 2021-22 school year, many parents expressed frustration about the requirement not being lifted after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened mask guidelines for vaccinated individuals.

Golden said the board's return to school framework called for masks to be required during the 2021-22 school year in accordance with CDC guidelines, which continue to recommend masks be worn in schools.

"We set the goal of being on campus this year if we could safely do so ... and masks were a part of that. It was part of what we put in [the framework] in July," Golden said.

Parents also questioned the district's position about vaccine requirements after rumors spread that the district would vaccinate children in schools. Golden said this stemmed from a survey sent out to parents earlier in the school year asking about interest in having the vaccine administered on campus for those who wanted it; however, that plan was later discontinued as the vaccine became more widely available to the general public.

"We are not administering a vaccine to any of our students," he said. "We did send a survey out—our health department asked us if we had any interest in providing the vaccine to students, so we surveyed our families, and we got a pretty significant response of yeses in the 1,000's. But we also did an analysis of our community and found that there were 44 different sites for the vaccine to be administered. So we determined there was no need for us to provide the vaccine over the summer to our students."

Golden also said the district has never required that students would have to receive the vaccine in order to attend a WCS school and has not received guidance from the state health department telling them to do so. Golden said receiving a vaccine is optional for both staff and students.

"We have not at any point required anyone to take the vaccine, and we never even implied that we would require someone to take the vaccine," he said. "So I want to make sure that that's clear as well in our community."

See a full video of the district's May 17 meeting here.