NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Schools Board of Education revisited their decision to transition elementary schools to Plan A next semester during their retreat Saturday.
The members listened to three hours of information from the administration and weighed options toward the end of the meeting. The board agreed unanimously to delay reopening in-person instruction five days a week for grades pre-K-5 until Jan. 19.
When students return from the holiday break, the first two weeks of the second semester — Monday, Jan. 4, through Friday, Jan. 15 — will be remote learning for all pre-K through grade 5 students.
Plan A will begin on Tuesday, Jan. 19, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Middle and high schools will remain in Plan B, as the governor has not allowed those students to return to in-person class full-time.
The board originally voted late last Tuesday to move to Plan A on Jan. 11. Although the board would have the authority to revert the action, it still included a clause in the motion stating the decision was pending an update from Superintendent Charles Foust. Board member Stephanie Kraybill suggested this “pause clause” would “sit better” with families who thought NHCS was rushing into Plan A.
Foust had recommended the district reopen the lower grades to full-time learning after conversing with superintendents in other large and neighboring districts across the state. He explained Plan B was straining teachers by forcing them to teach both remote and in-person students. He also said some staff members warned they may leave their positions if Plan B continued.
For similar reasons, board member Hugh McManus suggested the district delay Plan A, to give the teachers additional time to prepare.
“They need to relax for once over Christmas and not worry that every day they get closer to the 11th,” McManus said.
Board member Judy Justice, who abstained from the initial Plan A vote because she felt there was a lack of information, backed McManus’ idea. Despite Foust maintaining that Jan. 11 was still the best date to start Plan A, the board agreed to tack on a second remote week. The first five days back from holiday break, Jan. 4-8, were already mandated remote days.
Justice also insisted the board review the Covid-19 metrics throughout the following month and call a special meeting a few days in advance of Plan A’s implementation.
“We really need to be looking at what’s going on in the community all during that time because that’s what all this is about,” Justice told the board.
The unanimous vote to postpone Plan A came after three hours of discussing Covid-19 prevention in schools, from how contact tracing works to how students will load onto buses to how much personal protective equipment is available.
Covid-19 cases continue to surge in record-breaking numbers across the state, and those numbers are reflected in schools. NHCS reported some of its highest metrics in the past two school weeks, including 116 confirmed cases in its facilities and 159 precautionary quarantines for exposure at school.
“Across the board, our grade levels are like, ‘It’s not safe right now,” said Amanda Thomas-Nethercutt, a teaching assistant and parent at Murrayville Elementary. “Our numbers are going up. How can we safely bring all our children back in this building when some of the classes are going to have 22, 23, 24 kids? How is that safe to do right now?”
Districts such as Johnston County and Charlotte Mecklenburg are reverting back to Plan C through at least mid-January. Monday, Wake County is discussing whether to suspend in-person instruction as cases are expected to continue spiking through the winter.
However, the schools themselves are not at fault for community spread, according to the ABC Science Collaborative. The team of Duke University doctors recently asserted that schools can open safely in communities with widespread community transmission. The collaborative has yet to see a difference in Plan A versus Plan B, although the data is early and only comes from a few counties.
Of 11 districts that were open the first nine weeks of the school year, only 32 infections were acquired within schools, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services contact tracing. Researchers found no instances of child-to-adult transmission and linked most cases of secondary transmission to a lack of face coverings.
“Everybody loves to say, ‘Follow the science. Believe the science.’ Whether you’re a Democrat, whether you’re a Republican. Everybody says this, but when the science proves something, we still don’t do it,” said Mitch Whitman, a NHCS parent who is excited to have his elementary-aged children back in school full time.
Whitman said since March, his five children — who regularly earn As and Bs — have struggled to keep up their grades while learning remotely.
“These kids need to be in school,” he said. “They need their teachers in front of them, instructing them, helping them understand concepts that as their parents we can’t do for them. I can Google stuff, but that’s not how I want my kids to learn. I want my kids to be taught by the teachers that went to school for this very purpose.”
At the retreat (available to watch on YouTube) administrators worked through details of how schools will operate under Plan A. Previously, some board members felt there was not enough planning to make an informed decision.
The school board also failed to hear from concerned parents prior to the decision, by pushing the call to the audience at its regular board meeting to the later part of the agenda.
Educators and parents joined outside the retreat Saturday for a rally in the board of education center parking lot. School board members stopped to talk with the group on their way into the meeting.
“Parents are having to lock into a decision. Do they want to go to face-to-face? Or do they want to go virtually?” said Elizabeth Budd, a second-grade Murrayville teacher and political organizer with the North Carolina Association of Educators. “If we’re asking parents to make such a serious decision, we need to tell them all the ins and outs of that decision so they’re not blindly going into an obligation that they’re going to be stuck in for the rest of the school year.”
Parents must answer through a survey whether their child or children will attend school face-to-face or remotely next semester. The survey disclaims that there will be minimal social distancing. The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit outlines that in Plan A, 6-feet distancing is encouraged but not required as it is under Plan B. It’s more likely teachers will be aiming for 3-foot social distancing in Plan A and bus drivers will place two to three students per seat.
Social distancing decreases the risk of infection after exposure to Covid-19 by 85%, according to research updates from NCDHHS. To most effectively reduce the risk, that mitigation technique should also be used along with masks and hand washing. People should also limit the amount of time they’re in close proximity with others to less than 15 minutes.
Budd said in an interview, the New Hanover County NCAE chapter, the organizing party of the rally, wants the district to follow the ABC Science Collaborative “12 Principles for Safer Schools,” specifically the top two: transparency and contact tracing.
“Our jobs are incredibly challenging right now and we really don’t like the fact that we’re having to do extra work,” Budd said. “We can’t be with our children. We can’t be there to impact their lives the way we normally would want to. We want to go back, and we don’t want to be pinned as people that don’t want to go back, but we want to go back in the right way.”
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