Jay Fenwick, Scott Elliott

Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott outlines options for in-person learning during a Sept. 14 Board of Education meeting. Also photographed: Board member Jay Fenwick.

BOONE — The Watauga Board of Education is considering bringing K-3 students back into schools for in-person learning starting Oct. 5 and then allowing grades 4-12 to re-enter on Oct. 19 as planned.

The board voted on July 28 to delay in-person instruction for nine weeks while students learned remotely starting Aug. 17. Board members planned to monitor COVID-19 trends, and then make a decision if it was feasible for students to return in person starting Oct. 19.

“I feel very confident in our ability to safely return students to school on Oct. 19,” said Superintendent Scott Elliott during the board’s Sept. 14 meeting. “I also feel confident that we can phase students in gradually.”

Elliott shared three options with the board of how students could return to in-person instruction in a 2x3 flex plan — a hybrid in-person and remote learning schedule. Option 1 allowed all students to return to school on Oct. 19 as planned. Option 2 would bring K-3 students back starting Oct. 5, grades 4-5 starting Oct. 12 and grades 6-12 on Oct. 19. The last option would bring K-3 students back on Oct. 5 and 4-12 grades on Oct. 19. The approximate 763 Watauga Virtual Academy students would still be learning virtually with any of the three options.

Board member Gary Childers asked Elliott what he recommended; Elliott said that after having conversations with principals that he would recommend option 3.

Elliott said that allowing the younger grades to enter the school first would allow school officials to continue screening procedures that are in place while beginning to reacclimate students and employees into school and assess protocols for tasks such as cleaning and sanitizing. He didn’t recommend bringing the older students back before the younger ones, as the older students can manage remote instruction easier.

Board member Jay Fenwick suggested voting on an option at a special called meeting the following Monday (Sept. 21) to allow another week of COVID-19 metric observation, and also to allow board Chairman Ron Henries a chance to vote — as Henries was not in attendance on Sept. 14. He did want to communicate to families that the board was “heavily learning toward” option 3.

According to Elliott, around 875 students have visited school campuses for different activities — with about 406 of those students being at the schools for athletic practices. The students are being screened, have their temperatures taken and wear masks when appropriate, he said. While most students have not been able to enter school buildings, the school system has allowed exceptional children (70 students) and pre-K students (91 children) to participate in in-person learning.

Approximately 155 children of employees have attended the day camp program provided by after-school staff to allow teachers to continue to work. Others arriving to school campuses included about 20 students for driver education, 85 for one-time services (such as speech assistance) and 48 students who accessed Career and Technical Education labs.

“We’ve slowly been reintroducing students into campus and school,” Elliott said. “It’s been good for all of us to see.”

Elliott mentioned that the school system has had positive cases among employees and students, but that none at that point had been contracted at school but were transmissions within families. None of the positive cases have been through the pre-K program, he said.

Elliott added that he couldn’t say that every single teacher is comfortable and ready for students to return to the schools, but that a significant number of teachers are prepared for students to come back.

“We have some teachers and staff members who would go get the kids at their houses and bring them to school tonight if they could have them back in school,” Elliott said. “We have some staff members who still have significant concerns about the reintroduction of students back into the building either because of their own health concerns or the generalized anxiety we all have about COVID-19. There’s a wide range of levels of readiness and concerns.”

AppHealthCare Health Director Jen Greene provided the board with an overview of COVID-19 metrics in Watauga County and trends her agency is experiencing. Childers asked Greene if the county was at a point where the virus is contained enough that she thinks that the board should consider having students in buildings. Greene added that the county has had an increase in COVID-19 cases, but not to the severity that they worried could happen.

“It’s not as dramatic of an increase as what I feared it might be at this point,” Greene said. “It doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, and I hope it doesn’t.”

When making the decision to postpone in-person learning through October, board members mentioned that Appalachian State University students were returning to campus. Several commented during the July 28 meeting that they wanted to observe the case numbers after university students returned to Boone.

Greene said the cases in Watauga have “leveled off,” but that health officials need to monitor metrics very closely as the cases can easily grow.

“If you look at the data, it looks like we’ve grown and stayed at a steady trickle of cases,” Greene said. “Our total cases will continue to rise; that’s important for the community to know. We’re not at a point where we’re going to expect it to drop, but if we can continue to contain it with contact tracing, testing and making sure people are doing the right thing, my concern level over pre-App State returning is not what it was. But I won’t say I’m not cautiously watching it.”

Greene said AppHealthCare staff are also monitoring case numbers after Labor Day weekend, expecting that cases could jump after holiday gatherings like Memorial Day weekend or July 4.

“I think the greatest threat to us and our numbers is our own complacency, and not continuing to be diligent about … minimizing large gatherings, wearing face masks, social distancing and all of those things,” Elliott said. “Those are the things that are within our control. There are many people who want our children back in school but who are not doing the very things that we’ll need to have done in order to bring our numbers down. Everyone is going to have to help us to get back to where we want to.”

Elliott added that it may be more clear of when it’s not safe to open schools rather than when it is safe to open schools. Greene said that public health and school officials need to also take into account other factors of public health, such as the evidence that students being in school supports their overall wellbeing.

During the meeting, Elliott mentioned discussing the considerations of moving ahead with school reopening with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper’s office the following day. He believed that with the direction of the metrics statewide, there was probable conversation of bringing more students back to school statewide.

“This is without our crystal ball,” Elliott said. “This is being optimistic and hopeful based on our current conditions and all of the conversation we just had.”

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