NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Late Tuesday night, just hours after four new members were sworn into the New Hanover County Board of Education, Superintendent Charles Foust recommended pre-K and elementary schools move to Plan A in the spring and, with the support of chairperson Stefanie Adams, urged approval of the transition by the end of the night.
After a lengthy debate over whether to postpone the decision, the majority of the board agreed to send preschoolers and K-5 students back to school in person five days a week, beginning Monday, Jan. 11.
Foust explained the early move was necessary to allow sufficient preparation time before students and staff disperse for the holiday break.
The decision to move to Plan A was acknowledged Wednesday morning in a joint press conference with three county commissioners, three board of education members, Foust and Public Health Director Phillip Tarte. The officials also celebrated that all district employees would receive a $1,500 bonus for their work during the pandemic due to a county appropriation that was matched by the school district.
The press conference was announced at around 11:15 p.m. the night before, roughly 30 minutes after the school board took its vote on reopening elementary schools full time. The board of education members, some of whom reluctantly supported the decision, were still sitting at the table when the event was publicized.
This preplanned media briefing, along with a series of events between Monday night and Wednesday morning, stirred anxiety and raised questions throughout the community about one of the most crucial decisions for schools in the pandemic.
Why was the transition plan for the spring semester essentially hidden from the public ahead of the school board meeting? Why was NHCS no longer adhering to the 5% Covid-19 positivity rate rule it had previously cited? And why did commissioners openly advocate for reopening pre-K-5 schools at the same time they were appropriating millions in bonuses for the district’s employees?
An unshared agenda
When a “transition plan” was posted on the online school board agenda, there was no attached document, leaving the public to wait and see what the two vague words meant.
A district spokesperson told Port City Daily the documents were being revised and would be posted ahead of the meeting; however, board members received physical copies days prior.
At the meeting, Port City Daily was told it could not photograph the board members in session, an apparent violation of N.C. Open Meetings Law.
The public comment section had also been moved to later in the meeting than usual. It was around 11 p.m. when board members heard pleas from parents to keep students in Plan B—after they had already voted on the item.
Holding a call to the audience in the later part of the meeting violates board policies adopted in September 2020. According to the board of education policy 2330, “Each month, the first part of at least one regularly scheduled board meeting will be set aside for citizens to address the board through public comment, or a call to the audience.”
Adams said this was unintentional, likely a mix up in the board management software Simbli.
It had already been hours into the meeting when the public heard the plan, detailed in a two-page document by Foust.
The plan included a brief description for how elementary, middle, high and alternate schools would operate next semester.
Middle schoolers and high schoolers will have to choose definitively between the AA schedule, the BB schedule or all remote. Students will be marked absent if they do not physically attend class on their assigned face-to-face days. Previously, they could stay home and choose to attend virtually on any given day.
The superintendent explained that teachers could no longer continue with synchronous and asynchronous learning, and they needed to reopen schools to alleviate the strain put on the educators.
At this time, Gov. Roy Cooper has only allowed districts to reopen preschools and elementary schools at full capacity. Under Plan A, the students are limited to two options: attend school five days a week or sign up for all-remote instruction. A virtual academy is also available for families who prefer it.
School leadership will determine which educators are designated remote teachers and which are assigned in-person classes.
The change will start on Jan. 11, the second week after the holiday break. During the first five school days of the spring semester, all classes will be conducted remotely.
The ‘bare-boned three paragraphs’
Before hearing Foust’s recommendation, the school board members heard from the ABC Science Collaborative and the New Hanover County Health Department, as well as a presentation on elementary school failure rates that was not specified on the agenda. The overview revealed two schools had 100-plus students with failing grades.
Citing the new information received and the seriousness of the decision, board member Judy Justice motioned to postpone the vote. She explained a few days would provide the board, especially its new members, adequate time to review the information. The motion was seconded by Stephanie Walker, who took her oath of office earlier in the evening.
Justice initially asked that the board wait until a retreat on Saturday to make a decision. She later withdrew her motion and moved to revisit the issue via Zoom in 48 hours.
“There was even more information I needed to have before I could feel comfortable moving into A,” Justice said after the meeting. “They immediately jumped into that bare-boned three paragraphs – What was that three paragraphs? That wasn’t a plan – They jumped into that and immediately wanted us to approve it.”
But Foust explained next week is the last of the semester, and the staff needed time to communicate with the families and work out details with transportation, nutrition and other departments.
Adams backed Foust. She argued the transmission rates were minimal in schools, yet students were suffering academically and mentally. She went back and forth with Walker and Justice over whether a few more days would make a difference in the decision.
“I have to look to our students and what is best for our students, and if I am honest with myself, having them in school is what’s best for them and we know that,” Adams said in an interview.
Walker said she was unaware the board was taking a vote on the issue until the night before. She assumed the board was only receiving information to make a better decision in the future. After the meeting, she called it “a little bit of an ambush.”
“To be clear, I’m not not supporting it just ‘cause it’s Plan A,” Walker said, “but it has to be done safely and he [Foust] didn’t have any answers I needed for that. And I can’t vote on something like that so quickly. They were forcing the vote, I thought.”
Justice said she was open-minded at the start of the night, despite finding out en route to the meeting that a relative of hers had succumbed to Covid-19. After hearing from the health experts earlier in the night, Justice said she was leaning toward staying in Plan B, but she added, “I can’t say that because nobody had a chance to ingest everything.”
Justice’s motion failed. Only Walker supported it.
At that point, vice chair Nelson Beaulieu motioned to accept the transition into Plan A, pending an update from the superintendent on Saturday and a subsequent meeting to either affirm the vote or “hit the pause button and stay in Plan B.” That idea appeared to make more members comfortable with approving the plan. It passed 5-1, with Justice abstained.
“It felt like it was a decision that had to be made,” Beaulieu said the next day. “I don’t think anybody who’s doing this responsibly would ever be 100% comfortable with it. There’s a fear. It’s understandable. But there’s also a fear of what happens when our kids just can’t read, and they’re in second and third grade? And what happens when their six hours of stability that they usually get just aren’t there and haven’t been there for 10 months?”
New board member Hugh McManus took several seconds to cast his yes vote. He said on a phone call Thursday morning he felt the board was trying to be supportive but he also thought Justice’s suggestion to delay the vote may have been a good one.
“In hindsight, which is always 20/20, we probably should have,” he said. “I think it was just too late, too tired, too much information but hopefully we’re going to revisit that and still continue to ask questions and see where we are.”
Justice attempted to abstain from voting, but the board’s attorney Deborah Stagner said without recusal her absentation may be treated as a yes.
“I want it on the record that I don’t feel there’s enough information,” Justice responded. “If you take it as a yes, you can take it as a yes.”
[Update: On Friday, Dec. 11, Justice told Port City Daily that she had confirmed with the board attorney and that she could, in fact, abstain from the vote on the basis of feeling uninformed.]
Walker was the sole dissenting vote.
“They wanted to force the vote,” Walker said. “So they forced me to vote no.”
A ‘tentative’ press conference
New board member Stephanie Kraybill asked a range of questions throughout the meeting. She said she came prepared with a list.
“If we’re going to have to talk about it, then let’s talk about,” she said.
Ultimately, though, Kraybill told the board, “let’s plan it,” pointing out they could reverse the decision if needed.
“We knew going into the meeting that this was happening – this was going to be talked about,” Kraybill said in an interview. “And I didn’t say it in the meeting, but I felt a little pressured, you know — a little strong-armed by the county commissioners.”
On Sunday, the commissioners allocated $2.75 million for bonuses to school staff, while in the same breath pledging the county’s support to fully reopening pre-K-5 schools.
Though the bonuses were approved during the discussion regarding reopening schools, the payout was not conditional on whether the school system adopted the recommended policy change, according to county manager Chris Coudriet.
“That was a gift of gratitude. It was nothing more. There is no conspiracy,” Adams said. “It was meant to thank our hard-working educators that have been showing up every day since the pandemic.”
Approximately 30 minutes after the school board’s vote passed, a news release was sent announcing a press conference the following morning with the New Hanover County Commissioners at the Board of Education Center.
Board members had received notification of this press briefing around 3 p.m., although at that point it was still “tentative.”
Walker said she sifted through her inbox after the meeting, which was when she first learned of the press conference. She assumed she missed the email because she was preparing for the school board meeting.
Justice said she also did not know of the press conference until she got home from the school board meeting around 12:30 a.m.
“If I had known about the press conference during our discussion about postponing the decision, I would’ve been even more adamant that that was one of the reasons they were trying to push it through,” she said.
Adams said the communications department has a new protocol to prepare press releases for all outcomes of a meeting in order to get information out to the public faster.
The joint conference
Wednesday morning, commissioners took seats in board-of-education chairs as several leaders took to the podium in front of multiple news cameras.
Adams spoke of the valuable relationship between the commissioners and school district. Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman thanked employees of the schools and announced the bonuses. Foust described his transition plan and his priority to return students to classrooms as soon as it was safe. Tarte gave an update of Covid-19 among the county’s youngest children.
“What we have found in our case investigation is that exposure to Covid-19 is overwhelmingly coming from outside of the school setting, social gatherings, other activities where protective measures are not being followed,” Tarte said.
In response to a media question, Foust addressed his change of mind since the last regular board meeting Nov. 10. Back then, school administrators recommended waiting until the percent of tests in the county coming back positive dropped to 5% or less.
“I will own my words,” Foust said. “I did say 5%.”
He said he spoke with superintendents of neighboring counties and of the largest school districts in the state about their experiences reopening schools.
“I felt more comfortable after speaking with them and talking with some of their individuals and hearing from their classroom teachers about how they were doing it, and their fear at the beginning and how they’ve settled into it at this point,” Foust said.
The board is holding a special meeting Dec. 12 and will discuss the district’s transition to Plan A. Ending the press conference, Olson-Boseman announced a joint meeting with the commissioners and board of education will be held in January.
“We’re not just up here having a press conference,” Olson-Boseman said. “We’re actually going to do the work.”
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