Erin Rice

Erin Rice, a Pre-K teacher at Valle Crucis, teaches her students about the letter ‘G.’

Watauga County Schools plans to continue with the current 2x3 flex model — a hybrid of in-person and remote learning — for the start of the semester in January.

WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said that while school leaders want to move forward with having students in full attendance under Plan A in grades K-5 as soon as it is possible, administrators are waiting until January to assess local conditions after the holidays to set a timeline for any changes. This would be in accordance to Gov. Roy Cooper’s Sept. 18 announcement to allow school systems to choose Plan A — allowing for minimal social distancing — for elementary school students.

The state still requires school systems to operate at no greater than Plan B with reduced capacity for middle and high school levels. Elliott said WCS will not consider any changes to scheduling for middle and high school grades until state requirements change.

The school system received results of a parent survey that ended on Nov. 16 that requested information on the intentions of parents to for their students’ participation next semester. According to Elliott, a total of 686 students — 474 students in K-8 and 212 in grades 9-12 — opted to enroll in the Watauga Virtual Academy for the second semester. This total is a decrease from the approximate 759 students enrolled in WVA for the current fall semester. Elliott said some students who were attending school in person will now be enrolled in WVA, while some WVA students are now choosing to attend in person.

According to Elliott, Watauga County Schools have had 52 employees and 96 students — a total of 144 cases — test positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 17. He said that the pattern school leaders have noticed is that cases are largely due to positive cases within families, close contacts at social events and athletic events outside of school.

“We continue to see very little sign of viral transmission in school,” Elliott said.

Of the 144 total cases, 77 were recorded in the month of November. The first week of the month (Nov. 2-6) had five student cases and five cases among employees. The second week (Nov. 9-13) brought on an additional six student cases and six employee cases.

The following week (Nov. 16-20) saw 16 student cases and eight cases among employees. While students were in school two days during the week of Thanksgiving (Nov. 23-25), the school system reported 18 student cases and three employee cases.

WCS reported 10 student cases starting the week of Nov. 30; the total amount of cases would be counted and reported on the school’s website the following Friday.

“We are doing everything we possibly can to keep our schools open,” Elliott said.

So far, WCS has had to send some of its pre-K classes home due to all students being close contacts to a positive case, but otherwise Elliott said the school system has not had to close any classes or grade levels due to COVID-19 cases.

WCS does have a number of staff members who are in isolation who have been able to teach classes remotely from home while another staff member is physically present in the classroom with the students, Elliott said. WCS has been able to manage COVID-19 cases by only isolating close contacts rather than by closing entire classes or schools.

“The only reason we would close a whole school is if we see a large outbreak of connected cases that are occurring in school,” Elliott said.

Elliott reiterated that most of the cases of student to student spread are from athletics and other outside of school activities. School officials have seen some transmission of the virus among staff members, and Elliott said administrators continue to emphasize the importance of social distancing at all times and to minimize close contacts with other school professionals in social settings.

Elliott said many other school systems are operating similarly to WCS with limited capacity and a blend of in-person and remote instruction. This mode of operating seems to be the best balance for most school systems, he added.

School systems that are operating all remotely are finding that the longer they wait to return back in person, the more difficult it is to get teachers and students back into in person instruction, according to Elliott.

“The schools that are not being diligent with following the state’s health and safety guidelines have found themselves having to close schools more often to deal with outbreaks,” Elliott said.

School systems that are currently in Plan A with reduced social distancing for grades K-5 have told Elliott that they are not seeing additional viral spread among students at schools, but when they have to conduct contact tracing they end up with far more students who have to stay home.

In collaboration with AppHealthCare, WCS is hosting free testing events each Wednesday for the next three weeks. Testing will be offered on Dec. 2 at Watauga High School in the bus parking lot, on Dec. 9 at Blowing Rock School in the front entrance parking lot and on Dec. 16 at Cove Creek School in the bus parking lot.

The events are planned to take place from 1-4 p.m. each of those days. While the events are open to the public, WCS is putting emphasis on testing for staff members, students and families.

For more information on Watauga County Schools and its COVID-19 response, visit www.wataugaschools.org/coronavirus.

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