NEW HANOVER COUNTY – More than 9,500 New Hanover County Schools elementary students will return to their classroom desks five days a week starting Monday with just about 3 feet of distancing.
“We’re moving ahead with March 8,” Board of Education Chair Stefanie Adams said on a phone call last week. “I feel good, and I am very proud of the work that’s being done by the central office and at the school level to prepare to bring back our students fully into the classroom.”
It will be the first time since mid-March 2020 that the county’s public elementary students are on a normal school schedule – even if school isn’t, exactly, normal.
Students will eat lunch silently in classrooms, sometimes plexiglass will divide them from their peers, and there will be little to no interaction or collaborative school work included in the lesson plans.
“It’s honestly kind of a sad visual,” said Elizabeth Budd, a Murrayville Elementary teacher and political organizer for the N.C. Association of Educators. “All the desks are facing the front, they’re spread 6 feet apart, or as close to 6 feet apart as they can [be]. Mine are pretty close to 6 feet. Not all of my colleagues can be that way.”
Budd’s second-grade class will welcome 13 students daily, compared to the seven or so she’s taught throughout Plan B. She said she’s fortunate compared to some of her colleagues, especially those in the older grades, who will have upward of 25 students in classrooms for the next six weeks.
Budd has purchased seat cushions for her students and taped numbers to the floor, spread 6-feet apart, so the children can move around for independent reading. Otherwise, she explained, they would have to sit in the same spot, facing forward, all day.
“They can take that cushion, go directly to their spot,” Budd said. “And that way, we’re not having to clean or share cushions. It always hangs on their desks.”
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At least 3,200 educators and staff, both in public schools and other K-12 institutions, have received vaccinations in New Hanover County.
The first day, Feb. 24, the vaccine queue opened to teachers, the county distributed the first dose to 1,200 of 3,900 public school employees, focusing on elementary school teachers.
“A huge feat,” chair Adams called it. “So much work and so much heart went into that, and I am incredibly proud of the New Hanover County Schools team that was part of that and so grateful for the partnership with public health.”
New Hanover County hosted another mass event this week to vaccinate 1,000 more school staff members, and many teachers have also sought out vaccines on their own from other providers.
Budd said all her colleagues who she talks to regularly have received the first vaccine. She called it an overwhelmingly positive experience, but it’s worrying at the same time to return to school so close to the finish line, Budd said.
“We’re so close to getting in that safe zone that it’s just really even more nerve-wracking, knowing how close we are,” Budd said. “But knowing how rampant this virus is right now, going through our schools. I have so many of my friends and colleagues that have been out within the past couple weeks with Covid.”
NHCS has only reported 19 transmissions since schools reopened to students on a part-time basis in October. Seven of those were in elementary schools, a low number considering there were 49 self-reported cases in elementary schools in two weeks in late February. NHCS administrators have touted quick response as reasoning why spread is so low on reports. Fourteen days prior to Tuesday’s meeting, 76 people were directed to quarantine after being exposed to someone else with Covid in a K-5 setting.
The ABC Science Collaborative has maintained that schools are “rarely super-spreaders.” Its pediatric scientists and physicians have found infection rates in schools reflect what’s transpiring in the community — not vice versa.
That’s a positive sign for NHCS. The current state of the pandemic in New Hanover County is improving, with just 5.4% of Covid-19 tests returning positive results, below the state average of 6.1%, as of Wednesday. Just four weeks ago, the rate was over 9%.
“This could be any number of factors,” New Hanover County Assistant Health Director Carla Turner told the board of education. “We believe we’re past that Christmas slash New Year’s surge. We are pushing out vaccinations, and we are continuing to encourage the three Ws.”
5% was the marker NHCS was aspiring to hit months ago as a signal that K-5 schools could reopen fully. That was before the Covid-19 holiday spike.
3-feet in class, zero on the bus
During the board-of-education meeting, central office staff presented on how the district is gearing up for Plan A.
Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson said the district is utilizing electrostatic sprayers in facilities and on buses, and has ramped up the building’s ventilation and air filtration.
He added that his team visited several schools to help set up classrooms with 3-feet of spacing between desks, despite the CDC recommending at least 6 feet.
“Schools have called and said, ‘Hey, we’re having problems setting up. We’re just concerned that we’re not achieving our goal of 3-foot separation.’ By the time we’ve left every one of those schools, we’ve achieved that,” Anderson said.
NHCS is not required to follow CDC recommendations, but it is required to follow the state’s Strong Schools NC Toolkit. The guidance states schools should maintain as much distance as possible under Plan A. Children under 14 are less likely to transmit the virus, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The goal isn’t to lessen the distancing,” Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam said. “The goal is to increase the number of students for face-to-face learning, and it’s at a cost – and the cost would be whether you can maintain that 6 feet or whether you maintain it to the maximum extent possible.”
Third-grade Murrayville teacher Suzann Graf said some of those costs seem somewhat “reckless.” She spent the majority of Wednesday rearranging her class to ensure at least 3 feet between students’ spots.
“I’m in a relatively good situation,” said Graf, who has 13 face-to-face third graders on her roster under Plan A. “Some of the teachers, I don’t know how they’re going to separate and get the 3 feet in there. But it’s really frustrating because 3 feet to me is just half of the 6 feet, so it’s like, ‘Eh, we’ll cut the distance in half just to make this work.’”
Throughout the reopening debate, another significant cause of concern has been transportation. It’s the one place NHCS has been unable to assure social distancing when addressing the school board.
The goal is to keep the number of bus passengers under 48, rather than the maximum 72. That requires placing two children on each seat rather than three. Anderson said right now the district is expecting less than 10% of buses to hold 48 or more students.
“I do believe that in the first two weeks when we’re comparing requests for transportation versus actual ridership, we will reduce that even further,” Anderson said.
The district plans to operate bus routes with 47 fewer drivers than it had prior to the pandemic. It’s also struggled to retain substitutes, many of whom are retired educators who don’t want to fill in for a teacher who is potentially quarantining. NHCS put out an announcement last week that it is currently hiring subs for $80 per day, although applicants with a current or expired teaching license can make up to $103.
Through its substitute teacher campaign, NHCS has increased its active substitute pool from 174 to 214, according to Alison Coker, assistant superintendent of human resources.
Plans B and C
Wednesday night the toolkit was updated to remove Plan C – all remote learning – as an option for school districts. From now on districts should only provide at-home learning to higher-risk students and families who choose that option on their own accord, according to NCDHHS.
Of the 11,241 elementary students in NHCS, just 1,479 have opted to remain fully remote under Plan C. 161 chose the virtual academy, an online self-paced learning option with fewer synchronous sessions.
Meanwhile, middle and high schools are continuing to learn under the hybrid model known as Plan B. The students are split into two groups, with half attending in-person at a time. For three days, students learn from home.
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