NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Just hours after Gov. Roy Cooper called on school districts to return to in-person instruction, the New Hanover County Board of Education agreed Tuesday night to revisit the decision to fully reopen elementary schools.
After an hour of comments from the public — the majority addressing resuming daily in-person classes — the board agreed to take up the issue next week at a special meeting. (As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the date and time had yet to be announced).
All schools in the 26,000-student district — the 11th largest in North Carolina — currently are operating under the state’s Plan B model, with students split into two groups, half attending in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays. On the days students are not physically in class, instruction is provided remotely and all students are in remote classes on Wednesdays. The goal is to keep in-person attendance small enough to accommodate social-distancing.
In late September, Cooper gave school districts the option for elementary schools (K-5) to return to full-time, in-person classes (Plan A) Oct. 5. The New Hanover Board of Education voted for a Jan. 25 switch to Plan A for elementary schools, but reversed itself Jan. 13 after a post-Christmas surge in Covid-19 cases led to the county’s highest transmission rates to date.
Board members also received an update Tuesday from the district’s Covid-19 health workgroup on trends in both the community and schools. The group reported that virus rates are declining and transmission in school buildings is low, but most teachers remain ineligible for vaccines under the state’s priority system. (Cooper and state health officials have said they highly urge counties to follow the priority-group guidelines, but they are not mandatory. Several North Carolina counties recently offered vaccines to teachers and all five New Hanover County Commissioners received the vaccine when they were not eligible).
NHCS Superintendent Charles Foust said Tuesday it would take the district at least a week to prepare for a full reopening of elementary schools.
No vaccines for teachers yet
Earlier in the day, Cooper held a press briefing “strongly urging” school districts to resume some level of in-person instruction for all students. At the time of the conference, about 25 school districts in North Carolina were not providing an in-person instruction option.
“Research done right here in North Carolina tells us in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols,” Cooper said.
He said students should still have the choice of at-home learning and at-risk teachers should be the ones providing that remote instruction.
However, his announcement did not include any plans for vaccinating teachers sooner than expected. Educators and school staff are still in Group 3, along with other people considered frontline essential workers, which includes restaurant staff, elected officials, public transit employees and more.
As of Wednesday, nearly 1 million people in North Carolina — about 9.5% of the state’s 10.5 million residents — have received first-dose vaccines. New Hanover County has administered more than 31,000 doses totals. Teachers are next in line to receive the vaccine, after people 65 and older and health care workers, but New Hanover County Assistant Health Director Carla Turner confirmed the county is still several weeks away from vaccinating teachers.
The state is only guaranteeing the county a baseline allocation of 300 doses over the next three weeks (though generally has received more ) and is also instructing counties to inoculate any nonresidents who book an appointment “because our goal is to vaccinate as many people as we can,” Turner said.
New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, who has been an outspoken advocate of reopening elementary schools fully, sent a letter to Adams after the governor’s announcement saying she plans to advocate for K-5 teachers to receive priority vaccines.
“I share the governor’s call and hope you do as well,” Olson-Boseman wrote.
As vaccination efforts ramp up, health officials are hopeful that Covid-19 numbers are on the decline.
“We are beginning to trend in the right direction, but it’s not happening quickly,” Turner told the board.
Two weeks ago, 8.4% of Covid-19 tests were returning positive in New Hanover County. Turner said that is “a really nice number compared to what we had been.” The following week, Jan. 17-23, the rate climbed back up to 10%.
As of Wednesday morning, New Hanover County has reported 13,851 cases. Of those, close to 4% are in the 5-10 age groups and 5% are between 11 and 17.
Health officials previously have considered a positivity rate of less than 5% as a goal for slowing the spread of the virus. At one point, it was used as the metric for when NHCS would reopen elementary schools.
The school system, as of Jan. 29, has reported 464 positive cases since students returned to schools in person on Oct. 12. Of those, 322 were students and 142 were staff. The totals equate to 1.2% of the district’s students and 3.6% of its employees.
However, the school numbers only reflect cases that were self-reported.
NHCS has also counted 742 quarantines for exposure inside schools. Of those people who isolated, nine ended up testing positive. That means secondary transmission has occurred less than 10 times in NHCS: twice student-to-student; once student-to-staff; four times staff-to-staff and twice staff-to-student.
“Transmissions are not happening in the schools so much as we’ve seen in a lot of congregate settings, including long-term care,” New Hanover County interim health director David Howard said in an interview Tuesday. “Typically it’s contracted and brought in outside that setting.”
Howard went on to say a successful return to in-person instruction will require a two-part solution. For starters, staff, students and families will need to “do their part” outside of schools to mitigate the spread. Additionally, Howard said, the school environment must be relatively controlled with cleaning, distancing, masks and other safety protocols upheld.
If elementary schools were to reopen fully, they would no longer be mandated by the state to enforce 6-feet distancing. Rather they would only have to encourage that amount of spacing with markings on floors and in areas where people congregate.
Health officials have said 3 feet distancing is acceptable, although not as effective as 6. Some community members who are concerned with reopening elementary schools fully are apprehensive to fill classrooms with 20 to 30 students, with less social distancing than is currently practiced.
A New Hanover County teachers group has been advocating for the district to not open fully until it takes inventory of all spaces in the buildings and makes accommodations to guarantee 6 feet of distancing.
The North Carolina Association of Educators has been criticized by other parents for their efforts. Tuesday, a group of ralliers on the opposite side of the debate met in front of the board of education building to express disappointment in last month’s decision to postpone the reopening and vocalize support for full in-person instruction in elementary schools. The protesters were backed by the New Hanover County Republican Party.
“We stand for the kids today,” said party chairman Will Knecht, in a speech to the crowd. “Again, we ask you, Pete [Wildeboer], we ask the other members of the board of education to do your job and do it tonight. There is no reason for our schools to not open Monday.”
Rediscussing the move
Next week’s meeting will be the fourth time the board has publicly debated reopening elementary schools fully since December when Foust placed a surprise “transition plan” on the agenda and urged the school board to approve it within the night.
Although multiple board members were hesitant to approve the plan at the time, it was passed after clarification that the board could revisit the issue. Six days later, the board delayed the start of Plan A. On Jan. 13, in the midst of the holiday Covid-19 spike, the board called off the plans, stating it would reconsider at a later time, possibly in early March.
However, next week’s meeting will be the first time the school board discusses the issue with updated guidance from the governor and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The last time the Democratic governor gave any guidance was September when he informed local school districts they could reopen K-5 schools.
“We have learned much more about this virus,” Cooper said in the briefing Tuesday. “And now it is time to get our children back in the classroom.”
In addition to revising Tuesday its public health toolkit, which contains health and safety requirements and guidance for K-12 schools during the pandemic, the state also released a new document titled “What Are We Learning.” The resource links to various research backing claims about the safety of reopening schools, including the CDC’s statement that 3-feet social distancing may still reduce the risk of spread but is not as effective as 6 feet.
The CDC updated its school guidance in late January. Its researchers recently stated “the preponderance of available evidence” from the fall suggests rapid spread is not happening within schools the way it has in congregate living facilities.
The details of NHCS’ upcoming meeting are yet to be announced.
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