NEW HANOVER COUNTY – The New Hanover County Association of Educators (NHCAE) is calling on the school district to comply with its list of demands ahead of reopening elementary schools full time on Jan. 19.
On New Year’s Eve, representatives of the organization held a press conference in front of the New Hanover County Board of Education building to vocalize their requests for Plan A. Most notably, the members are asking for increased transparency of virus infections in the buildings and a guarantee of no less than 6 feet of social distancing.
The N.C Department of Health and Human Services’ guidance for schools does not require 6 feet distancing in Plan A as it does in Plan B. Rather it directs schools to mark 6 feet of spacing in high-traffic areas to remind people to stay apart.
“The New Hanover County school board is going to bring back all elementary students to school during the worst of the pandemic and blow out one of the key pillars of infection prevention,” said Amanda White, president of the NHCAE and a Hoggard High School chemistry teacher. “They must acknowledge and own these facts.”
The school board voted last month to re-open all pre-K and elementary schools under Plan A starting Jan. 19, which will bring back students five days a week with no capacity limits. However, families may still opt for 100% remote learning.
Under Plan A, it’s unlikely 6 feet of social distancing will be accomplished. In December, after the decision was announced, parents were asked to fill out surveys on whether their children would attend school in person or from home. The surveys disclosed that social distancing would be limited.
On Dec. 8, New Hanover County Public Health officials told the board 6-feet distancing would not be maintainable in a full classroom. To prevent the transmission of Covid-19 in the absence of one of the 3Ws, the schools would have to depend on thorough hand washing and a strict adherence to masks.
The NHCAE is asking the district to look into innovative solutions to allow the greatest amount of distancing possible, such as taking inventory of the amount of space in buildings to spread out classes.
“We should maximize every square foot of space in our school facilities to make this feasible,” said Elizabeth Budd, a political organizer with the NCAE and a second-grade teacher at Murrayville Elementary. “Our health and our safety depend on it.”
Also, NHCAE is requesting the district detail the number, location and time of secondary infections within school buildings. Currently, New Hanover County Schools publishes every Friday afternoon the count of new Covid-19 cases per school, as well as the number of assigned quarantines due to exposure in its facilities and clusters.
At the press conference, NHCAE representatives also expressed they would like to retain Wednesdays as a remote day in Plan A, and are recommending an educator and staff advisory council is formed to bring forth policy recommendations and suggestions to inform future decision making.
“A staff advisory council is also a formal way to hold educators accountable for helping deliver solutions to the problems that our district must overcome together,” Budd said. “We are not here to throw sand in the gears or a wrench in the spokes of an administration and a school board that are trying to find solutions to allow us to fully reopen our schools. We just want to be part of that conversation.”
NHCAE brings all these requests to the forefront as Covid-19 numbers in North Carolina reach record highs and as vaccine distribution is just beginning. Just over the last few weeks, New Hanover County has moved from a yellow zone, signaling “significant” community spread, to the more serious orange zone, a warning of “substantial” spread,” as a result of its high percent positivity rate and the number of new cases.
“Why is the school board wanting to reopen now when the infection trends are climbing through the roof?” said Allison Lashford, a special education teacher at Ashley High School. “What haunts me more than the infection numbers are the numbers of the eight North Carolina educators who have died.”
To date, no public school employees in the tri-county area have died of an infection. However, neighboring Brunswick County currently has the largest reported cluster in the state at Town Creek Elementary School in Winnabow.
Brunswick County Schools has operated its K-5 grades under Plan A since October. Soon after the NHCS board voted to transition to Plan A, Town Creek Elementary experienced an outbreak with 37 people infected and at least 135 quarantines, according to the most recent Covid-19 dashboard (it hasn’t been updated since Dec. 21 due to the holiday break).
The transmission led to BCS reverting to Plan C at the start of next semester, requiring all grade levels to participate in remote learning through Jan. 19.
On Tuesday the NHCS board will meet at 5:30 p.m. for its regular monthly meeting. Only 10 minutes are set on the agenda for a Covid-19 update from New Hanover County Public Health representatives. There are also 15 minutes scheduled to discuss an ultraviolet light cleaning service.
“We want to be absolutely crystal clear,” White said. “We want to reopen public schools when we can open our schools safely and fully transparently.”
Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org