BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After an hours-long meeting with multiple failed motions and audio issues, a majority of Brunswick County Schools (BCS) board members voted in favor of delaying in-person learning for 4.5 weeks, opting for remote learning for all students in the interim.
The time period represents half of a grading period while BCS staff continue to work out a Covid-19 reopening plan. The decision split the board 3-2, with board members Gerald Benton and Charlie Miller voting against the delayed option, preferring to reopen schools to in-class instruction.
Superintendent Dr. Jerry Oates recommended the board delay reopening schools for in-class instruction for nine weeks before an in-person instruction plan is finalized.
“There is no right answer for everyone. But I can only offer what is on me – what is on my conscience — to be at peace. And that is to ensure the safety of our students and our staff at every turn,” he said at Tuesday’s curriculum committee meeting.
Arriving at a 4.5-week delay came after a series of failed proposals.
Board member Dr. Ed Lemon first motioned to delay reopening by three weeks, Chairwoman Ellen Milligan seconded but failed to get any other support. Board member Catherine Cooke made a motion in accordance with Dr. Oates’ recommendation to delay nine weeks, which failed after no one seconded the motion.
Benton motioned to begin school on time with K-8 students attending daily and rotate in high school students as space is available, with a preference for seniors if there is available capacity. The motion failed. Cooke proposed motioning for a six-week delay reopening but did not appear to formally call the motion.
Finally, Milligan motioned for 4.5 weeks, gaining the support of Lemon and Cooke.
Benton advocated for keeping schools open five days a week for students utilizing room left open by anticipated remote-only students. He questioned whether the quality of virtual education would stack up to in-person instruction and reminded the board of the needs of working parents.
An estimated 10% of BCS students do not have access to the internet at home, according to the district’s remote instruction plan recently submitted to the state. Sharing equity concerns, Benton said students do not have equal access to an equal education under current blended remote or remote-only options.
“We’re taking taxpayer money and we need to provide parents with the best education possible,” Benton said. Miller seemed to agree with Benton’s general push to reopen classrooms, stating he would prefer to see students safely attend school in person.
With 12,500 students, BCS is anticipating 2,200 (about 18%) will not return for in-person instruction if and when it becomes available. According to a parent remote survey, 22% of respondents said remote instruction this spring did not meet their children’s needs.
In presenting the district’s remote learning plan to the board, Assistant Superintendent Molly White said the system has come a long way since March. Remote learning will be mostly asynchronous with synchronous participation options. The district can’t mandate students to tune in to presentations at certain times because of at-home circumstances that may prevent them from meeting a classroom’s exact schedule. Live videos will be archived and made available and attendance will be tallied on a daily basis.
“The flexibility in this environment is crucial because we don’t have control over as we do within brick and mortar as to how the day is spent,” White told the board.
After switching to remote-only in March, Oates said he received a lot of criticism. “Many of the criticisms were warranted, I’ll be the first one to say, because it was a weekend turnaround,” he said.
He said he heard of teachers who hadn’t submitted assignments in weeks. Now, with grades counting and attendance being taken, Oates said increased accountability on behalf of both teachers and students will greatly improve the functioning of the district’s remote system.
Pressed by board members to describe whether the same amount of material will be taught online compared to in-person, White said a full year’s worth of instruction is planned. Generally, new material will not be presented remotely unless it is the only option, she confirmed.
“I talk myself in and out of what’s right because none of this is right,” White said referencing planning around Covid-19.
Reopening under either the A/B daily option or A/B weekly option would present the district with additional expenses. Under these options, busing one student per seat will cost the district an additional $17,000 per day, amounting to $3 million a year on transportation alone. Personal Protective Equipment will cost the district $125,000 monthly, about $1.2 million annually, according to figures provided by Oates.
“School will not be school,” Oates said. Students and staff will spend more time in-person meeting new social distancing requirements than they will during instruction, he said.
Approximately 117 Covid-19 cases, about 11% of the county’s total, are found in children under 18, according to county data as of Tuesday. Brunswick County Health and Human Services Director David Stanley said in cases among children, he’s mostly observed them arising from home settings as opposed to in child care settings.
The application for an entire semester of remote-only instruction remains open through Thursday, July 23 at 8 a.m.