BOONE — Watauga County Schools is asking for parent input as officials continue to make plans for the upcoming school year with regard to state guidelines and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released health guidelines on June 8 for how local school officials can plan to potentially return to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year. The department released three plans for which schools should prepare for implementation — ranging from returning to school in person to remote learning only. In consultation with the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, NCDHHS stated it will announce by July 1 which of the three plans should be carried out.
WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said the decision on minimum standards and which plan to follow will be made at the state level, and then school districts may opt to increase restrictions locally.
The state’s Plan A would reopen schools with minimal social distancing and would be implemented if COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize or move in a positive direction, Elliott said. This plan would involve a brief screening and temperature check of students and adults each day as well as vigilant monitoring of students for illness and COVID-19 symptoms. He explained that Plan B would require moderate social distancing, and 50 percent student capacity in school buildings. Plan C is — the most restrictive — would not allow in-person learning and would implement remote learning.
“Right now our plan is to be in school with all students and staff under Plan A in August unless told otherwise by the state,” Elliott said. “We want all our students back in school as soon as possible.”
Elliott said he knows that now is a time of great uncertainty and anxiety for students, parents and teachers. He added that WCS understands that a “hybrid” arrangement with the Plan B approach would be difficult for parents. The school system is asking for input from parents about which plan would be most manageable should the state move schools into Plan B. The school system created a brief survey for parents to comment on options for the 2020-21 school year, which can be found at wataugaschools.org/coronavirus or at tinyurl.com/yalzc2ej.
WCS is also asking parents to contact their school’s principal to discuss special circumstances in the case of students with chronic health conditions who might need extra precautions or even a plan for remote instruction.
A seven-person WCS return-to-school working group met June 10 to join a planning call with representatives from the NCDPI and NCDHHS for what Elliott called a preliminary, early-stage overview of how state leadership plans to reopen schools in August based on the severity of COVID-19 rates. Elliott said the group will work as needed during the summer as state decisions are made.
“The state guidelines offer both recommendations and requirements; all of the recommendations are reasonable but will require flexibility and creativity to implement,” Elliott said.
For example, Elliott said the school system wants to ensure that children stay at home if they are sick, which will require new screening procedures each school day and also additional vigilance and help from parents. The NCDHHS StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends that staff conducting the regular screenings for symptoms must wear gloves if available, and change gloves between direct contact with individuals. It is recommended that they use a touchless thermometer if one is available; taking temperatures orally is not advised.
The toolkit also recommends that schools minimize opportunities for sustained exposure of 15 minutes or more by ensuring sufficient social distancing of six feet between people whenever possible — including hallways and classrooms.
“Social distancing of six feet will not be possible in all situations, which is why it is critical that parents help us monitor for symptoms and keep children at home when they are sick,” Elliott said. “We will be vigilant about extra cleaning, hand washing and minimizing the sharing of materials and equipment to the extent possible.”
WCS will have to think differently about staff roles and responsibilities in order to ensure that all students and visitors are screened every day, Elliott said. While the school may need to hire more employees in order to so, Elliott said bringing on more staff would depend on funding the school system receives based on its enrollment as well as state funding for the coming year.
WCS will take extra precautions for the cleaning of equipment and classrooms — such as gyms and art classes — that are used by multiple classes throughout the day, Elliott said. This could mean that schools will need to change schedules so that smaller groups of students attend those classes at one time.
In the toolkit’s recommendations for social distancing, it recommended that school officials ensure that classrooms are large enough or class sizes are small enough for social distancing, as well as allowing for students and staff to be in large outdoor spaces. Elliott said it would be challenging for WCS to implement social distancing measures, but officials would make every effort to do so.
“Almost all of our school buildings are at capacity and are being used as creatively as possible to provide adequate space for our students during regular school days,” Elliott said. “We do not anticipate hiring additional staff in order to achieve smaller class sizes because we simply do not have the space to add more classrooms and still have all students in school at the same time.”
Finding ways to assist with social distancing could mean fewer students eating lunch in the cafeteria, limiting the number of students in the rest room at one time and students going directly to their classrooms when they arrive to school each morning.
“It is important that we take every precaution possible while also providing students with a natural and enjoyable learning environment,” Elliott said.
Cloth face coverings are recommended but not required, according to the toolkit. It suggests that face coverings should be worn by staff and students — particularly older students — if feasible, and would be most essential when social distancing couldn’t be achieved. It adds that cloth face coverings could be considered for younger children if it is determined they can wear, remove and handle masks while following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the day.
Cloth face coverings would not be recommended to be placed on those who have trouble breathing, are unconscious, are unable to remove the face covering without assistance or who cannot tolerate a cloth face covering due to developmental, medical or behavioral health needs.
Elliott said WCS will follow state requirements when it comes to the wearing of face masks, and that the school system would not make mask wearing mandatory unless required by the state.
“Masks can be worn by any staff member or student who needs or wishes to wear one,” Elliott said. “Our hope is that the daily screenings, extra cleaning and appropriate social distancing will help prevent any possible spread of the virus. This is a community health issue, not just a school issue. The best way to minimize the spread of the virus in our schools is to minimize the spread of the virus in our community. If we want our schools to return to normal operations, then we all need to do our part every day.”