NEW HANOVER COUNTY – For the first time in almost a year, New Hanover County Schools elementary students will return to physical classrooms five days a week, starting Monday, March 8.
In a special meeting Wednesday night, the New Hanover County Board of Education voted 5-2 to transition students in grades pre-K through 5 back to full-time learning, otherwise known as “Plan A.”
Schools will contact families soon to verify whether children will participate in Plan A or opt for all-remote learning, according to NHCS.
Middle and high schools will continue to learn under the hybrid model known as “Plan B.” The students are split into two groups, half attending in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays. On the days when students are not physically in class, instruction is provided remotely.
The board’s decision to reopen elementary schools without limiting capacity comes after Gov. Roy Cooper made two major school-related announcements.
Last week Cooper stated he was “strongly urging” schools to resume in-person instruction, just hours before the NHCS regular school-board meeting. The board decided to discuss the issue the following week.
A few hours before their planned discussion Wednesday night, the governor issued another announcement: Starting Feb. 24, educators and other school staff may start lining up for vaccines.
During the meeting, Superintendent Charles Foust recommended the board move forward with in-person learning March 8, which is the first day of the fourth quarter of school. This gives teachers a chance to wrap up the third-quarter grading period and begin Plan A with a fresh slate.
March 8 is also roughly two weeks after vaccines open up for education staff, allowing some to get a head start on receiving shots before classroom attendances likely double in size.
Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu said he would have preferred to start earlier than March 8. Over the past several months, Beaulieu has advocated for a move to Plan A, repeatedly stating he is concerned about students’ mental health deteriorating.
He pointed out more than 350 days will have passed from when the first case of Covid-19 was found in New Hanover County to when students will be back in schools full time. Attendees of the meeting cheered as he spoke.
“I personally couldn’t in good conscience add another day missed to the week,” he said.
Still, Beaulieu supported the motion. Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice opposed it.
Both Walker and Justice expressed concerns about filling up classrooms and buses with little-to-no social distancing. In Plan A, a minimum distance of 6 feet is not required by the state. (The CDC recommends 6 feet distancing in schools when possible.) Instead, schools will aim for at least 3 feet of spacing.
“The sticking point that I have is the safety issue,” Walker said. “We are at the darkest point of this Covid thing right now. We got vaccines on the way. We got warmer weather. We’ve got all these things that are getting ready to happen.”
Justice said she is pleased with the current hybrid model that students are learning under, especially when compared to the neighboring public school systems. Earlier the day of the meeting, Lincoln Elementary in Leland transitioned all its students to remote learning after health officials confirmed a cluster in the building. In fact, Brunswick County Schools has had multiple outbreaks in its elementary schools, which have been open full-time since October.
NHCS has only had one cluster, at New Hanover High in October, according to its reporting.
The other board members were willing to support Foust’s recommendation to reopen, including chair Stefanie Adams. Last month, Adams led the vote to delay the start of Plan A in elementary schools until further notice, due to the recent rise in case numbers. NHCS had originally planned to reopen the schools fully Jan. 19.
“I own the fact that I have taken this room on a rollercoaster,” Adams said.
School staff up next for vaccines
During his press briefing Wednesday, Cooper reiterated multiple times that schools should still open before staff members are inoculated.
“Educators can continue to work safely even before the vaccine [is] administered, as long as schools follow state health guidance,” the governor said. “Schools can get students back in the classroom safely right now, and that’s what I want them to do.”
Per the governor’s announcement, anyone in childcare, pre-K-12 public schools, charter schools and private schools is included in the guidance. It is about 240,000 people in North Carolina in total.
“That’s still a sizable group that has been moved up to the first two weeks of Group 3,” New Hanover County Assistant Health Director Carla Turner told the board. “I ask you to keep in mind that we continue to get limited amounts of vaccine.”
At this time, people 65 and older are still struggling to receive vaccines statewide. In New Hanover County, appointments typically fill up in minutes.
Turner said the health department is eyeing potential sites for vaccinating teachers and is considering days when students are out of school. Clinics also typically run until 7 p.m. for people who work throughout the day, Turner noted.
Ahead of the meeting, a resolution was drafted for the board to approve and send the governor. It requested he modify the vaccination rollout plans to ensure public school employees receive their doses as soon as possible.
Although the governor did take action addressing as much earlier in the day, the school board still chose to pass the resolution and send it off to the governor. Beaulieu said he wanted it on record that the board supported the motion.
The board also sent a letter to thank Cooper for moving educators up the vaccine list.
“Since day one of the pandemic, public school employees have gone above and beyond to perform their duties heroically in spite of extraordinary challenges,” the letter stated. “We greatly appreciate that they will be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine on February 24th, 2021. Like you, the health and education of our children is our top priority. By ensuring the public school employees have access to the vaccine, our school district and districts from across the state will be better prepared to maintain healthy learning environments while bringing students back to in-person instruction.”
Only 11 secondary transmissions
According to NHCS data, students and staff are rarely transmitting the virus within the walls of New Hanover County Schools, despite the system reporting 195 positive cases in two weeks.
(NHCS relies on students and parents self-reporting positive test results to collect its data.)
As of Wednesday, NHCS confirmed 11 secondary transmissions in schools, meaning only 11 people who were exposed to Covid-19 in school tested positive. Yet 949 people have been assigned to quarantine since October.
In elementary schools, transmissions have occurred at least three times between staff members, once between students, once from student to staff, and twice from staff to student.
“Seven elementary cases came from school, but we know we’ve had hundreds of cases,” Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam said, “so they’re not coming [from] within the school setting.”
Varnam interpreted this to mean that NHCS is capable of managing exposures.
Countywide, the pandemic seems to be slowing down. New Hanover County recently moved from the red to the less-alarming orange zone in the state’s Covid-19 County Alert System.
This downgrade is largely due to the decline in the percentage of tests coming back positive, a reassuring sign for the community. As of Thursday morning, the rate was 8%.
In the first 10 days of February, there were 38 cases in the 5-10 age range and 71 cases among ages 11-17. Those numbers include children countywide, not just NHCS students.
There were 149 cases amongst people between 50 and 64. Around 40-45% of NHCS staff fall in that age range.
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