NEW HANOVER COUNTY – New Hanover County Schools has once again changed its plan for elementary schoolers in the spring semester.
Students will not return in-person to classrooms full-time starting Jan. 19 as planned. Instead, K-5 students will continue in Plan C, all remote learning, for an additional week.
On Jan. 25, elementary schools will resume Plan B, a hybrid model in which students attend school face to face twice a week and learn from home the remainder of the days. In all three scenarios, families are given a 100% remote option.
NHCS Board of Education Chairperson Stefanie Adams, who previously strongly pushed for a transition to Plan A, surprised families in a meeting Wednesday when she said she could no longer support moving into full-time face-to-face learning in the coming week. She expressed concerns about schools not being able to follow through with all Covid-19 mitigation measures during a time when countywide transmission rates are at their highest yet.
Since the board first voted to transition to Plan A on Dec. 8, New Hanover County moved from the yellow to orange to red zone in the state’s Covid-19 alert system. The red zone signals the most severe levels of community spread in the three-color designation tier.
“I understand how badly we all want our kids back in school,” Adams said. “But if I have to look at mental health and academics in comparison to public health, I’m going to have to default to public health, and I know that it’s going to make people angry.”
Board of education members also wanted to see that teachers were first given the choice to be vaccinated before students returned to buildings full time, which would not allow for 6-feet social distancing. Educators are next in line to receive vaccines after the 75 and older population, but it is still unknown when those shots will be offered, as local demand far exceeds supply.
At the special meeting, the school board did not commit to a start date for Plan A but was eyeing March 8, the start of the fourth quarter in traditional schools.
The continuation of Plan C for a third week will give the central office time to reverse some of the work it did in anticipation of Plan A over the last month. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said staff has to make changes in its student information software PowerSchools and reconsider transportation routes.
This is the second time NHCS has altered its plan for elementary schools. On Dec. 8, the board took an unexpected vote to transition to Plan A in January, following the recommendation of the new slate of county commissioners. At the time, board member Judy Justice wanted to delay the decision to provide four new members who were sworn in that night more time to think it through, but Foust and Adams urged the board to take swift action so the staff could begin planning the transition and surveying families. It passed 5-2.
Just days later, on Dec. 12, the board voted unanimously to postpone the implementation of Plan A until Jan. 19, the day after Martin Luther King Day.
Wednesday’s decision by the school board was made after listening to two-plus hours of presentations from top district administrators, New Hanover County public health officials and the ABC Science Collaborative.
Board member Stephanie Kraybill asked Foust if he had anything else to add before they took the vote, saying: “I know you don’t want it and I know that you’re not crazy about this.”
“No surprises,” he replied. “That’s all I ask is that the board not surprise me.”
After more than a month of planning, administrators expected Plan A would run smoothly once implemented. They spoke of the various ways they’d mitigate the spread of Covid-19, from how teachers would host silent lunches in classrooms, so students would not talk to each other while unmasked and eating, to the way buses would be loaded back to front. They spoke of 3,000 new table dividers, a healthy stock of personal protective equipment in a warehouse and low secondary transmission rates.
District-wide, 478 people were assigned to quarantine during Plan B after making close contact with an individual inside a school facility who later tested positive from Oct. 12 to Dec. 18. Of all those people, only six contracted the virus, meaning there were only six identified cases of secondary transmission.
Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu was the lone dissenting vote Wednesday. He explained while he previously wanted to hold off on reopening schools until the percent positivity rate dropped, he’d come to realize how devastating the school closures have been for students.
“These kids, their school, for so many of them, is their whole lives and they’ve been asked to pause for a year,” Beaulieu said. “Our administration understands the realities of the pandemic raging around the county and they still come to us and they say, ‘I believe that we can do it safely.’”
Like the district’s staff, families will also have to revise their plans. Eighty-three percent of parents were opting to send their children to school full time this spring.
“The data strongly indicates the preference of our families is to have their children attend face to face,” Dr. LaChawn Smith, NHCS deputy superintendent, told the board.
However, the parents surveyed were only given the option of full in-person learning five days a week or all-remote learning. They were not given the choice of Plan B, which is half face-to-face school and half virtual. This was not clarified during the meeting.
Only eight schools had less than 80% of their families enrolling in Plan A. Wrightsville Beach Elementary had the highest percentage of parents choosing in-person learning for their children at 91.9%, a total of 250 students.
Teachers and parents have been voicing their preferences since the pandemic began, but especially as of recently since the NHCS board made the decision to revisit the issue. Adams said she’s received more than 350 emails since Jan. 10.
“When you look at our percentage of 83% of our parents want to come back into schools, it doesn’t seem to make sense with what type of feedback we’ve been receiving because it doesn’t align,” Adams said.
On Tuesday, parents of elementary students held a Zoom press conference to assert concerns about the lack of social distancing expected to occur in Plan A. On New Year’s Eve, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) met to list its demands for the new year, including a guarantee of 6-feet distancing and increased transparency in contact tracing.
A group on the opposite side of the debate showed up on the steps of the board of education center Wednesday in an attempt to prevent the board from reversing its Plan A decision.
“I don’t think they’re gonna stick with Plan A,” Misti Smith, a stay-at-home mom of two Parsley Elementary students, said before the meeting. “Because they’re getting pressured and hounded and emailed every day, all the time by those groups and they’re the vocal ones.”
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