NEW HANOVER COUNTY – New Hanover County middle and high students will take their pick of Plan A, B or C for the final seven weeks of school.
Starting Monday, April 12, the district will allow middle and high schoolers to attend in-person instruction five days a week. However, students can also remain in the hybrid model – with two face-to-face and three virtual days a week – or continue learning entirely remotely.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week he and lawmakers of the Republican-led legislature reached an agreement over a senate bill to return North Carolina’s students to school safely. The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021 was signed into law Thursday, allowing secondary schools the options to operate under Plan A (minimal social distancing), Plan B (6 feet of social distancing required) or both.
In most local school systems, Plan A is known as the five-day-a-week option since schools can accommodate more students at a time without spacing limitations and therefore offer daily in-person instruction.
“I think it was a bit of a shock for some of us,” school board chair Stefanie Adams said of the bipartisan bill. “And with that, everybody started to move very quickly to decide what is best for our district.”
New Hanover County Schools sent out a survey Friday and received nearly 7,700 responses from its 14,000 secondary students as of Tuesday evening. Of those, 58.4% indicated a preference to return to classrooms full time, 21.8% answered they would opt for the all-remote option, and 19.7% stated they would like to proceed with the hybrid model.
70% of respondents stated they would provide their own transportation. That means it will be more manageable to keep one student to a seat and social distance on buses, a significant concern during the reopening debate for K-5.
In a meeting Tuesday, school board members were surprised when the administration recommended offering all three learning options to students, although some questioned how teachers would balance the workload.
Superintendent Charles Foust said in talks with principals, none opposed reopening under Plan A. However, Foust said, due to timing constraints, there were no discussions with teachers.
“I think this is fantastic that you’re giving that third option of giving families the choice,” Adams said. “For me, from the beginning, this conversation has been about safety, and if teachers were returning back into the classroom and schools were open, they didn’t have a choice.”
She said vaccines have been a “game changer” and she was now in support of the admin’s recommendation. By April 12, most teachers will have received second doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. Three weeks ago, when school employees became eligible for vaccine, the county inoculated 1,200 public school employees during an initial mass vaccination event. In the following weeks, a second event was held and school staff also sought out appointments on their own, as well.
“We have to give our families the option and the choice,” Adams said. “If they feel that is dangerous, and they do not want to send their children back, they don’t have to. If they feel that they are willing to take that chance, I think it’s time that we give them that.”
Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu, who has remained an advocate for reopening schools, noted the percent positivity rate has dropped to 4%.
“The idea of getting our students back in the building for five or six weeks, just to be with their friends every day, to see their teachers every day, after this long and this hard [of] a road, to me, that’s the whole ballgame,” Beaulieu said.
Board members Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker cast the two dissenting votes. Walker voiced multiple concerns, including that students could return from spring break with the virus, schools may have to quarantine full classes during end-of-grade tests and graduation, and the reduced social distancing.
Justice was largely concerned with the teachers burning out from juggling in-person, hybrid and all-remote students. Foust and other administrators disputed this notion, stating that teachers are already teaching virtual and in-person simultaneously.
The superintendent said maintaining Plan B is not intended to assign anyone more work but would help students who took jobs to support their families during the economic distress caused by Covid-19.
“In a pandemic, I don’t know . . . how to help our families other than to provide access to being able to educate them,” Foust said.
Justice attempted to amend the vote to maintain “remote Wednesday.” Currently, Wednesday is still an instructional day, but students are not in the physical classrooms, allowing teachers some flexibility to catch up on lesson planning and grading. The motion failed 4-3.
As NHCS commences Plan A in its secondary schools, it must notify the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and detail its safety plans per Senate Bill 220. Districts that move to daily in-person learning must also provide Covid-19 data to Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative, which NHCS already does.
Schools will follow health guidance from the N.C. Strong Schools Toolkit as they operate under Plan A, while continuing to work out kinks that come with bringing the majority of students back to classrooms in the midst of a pandemic.
With more students entering buildings at a time, the district has found ways to expedite morning screenings, an issue at the start of daily in-person learning at K-5 schools. It has also increased its pool of active substitutes from 76 in January to 250.
New Hanover County elementary schools brought back more than 9,500 students who wished to return to class full time on March 8. It is teaching 1,640 K-5 students virtually.
Middle and high schools will reach out to families to learn their attendance choice for the remaining weeks of school.
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