RALEIGH — A planned July 1 announcement by North Carolina leaders on how statewide K-12 schools would open this coming school year has been postponed, while Watauga County Schools is mulling over 2,665 parent responses about the possible return for students.
On June 8, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines for schools to reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year. At the time, NCDHHS said that in consultation with the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, it would announce by July 1 which of the three plans it laid out should be implemented for schools to most safely reopen.
“We’re not issuing a statewide directive today on how schools should open in the fall, but we will soon. We want to get our students back in the classroom, and we want to make sure that we get this right,” Gov. Roy Cooper said on July 1.
Cooper said state officials needed a little more time, and that an announcement of school reopening plans would be made “within the next couple of weeks.” Superintendent Scott Elliott said that while he appreciates state officials for being deliberate and using the data to make informed decisions, “at some point soon we need direction so everyone can plan accordingly.”
Elliott said the school system will do its best to accommodate families, but that it won’t be able to implement a plan that works for everyone. Elliott said that the plan is to have a final recommendation for WCS operations to the Watauga Board of Education by the board’s July 13 meeting.
The anticipated three reopening scenarios include: Plan A, which calls for minimal social distancing; Plan B, which calls for moderate social distancing; or Plan C, which would result in remote learning only. Since that announcement, public school officials across North Carolina have been planning for what school could look like under each of these scenarios.
Cooper encouraged public school officials to continue this planning with a special focus on how teachers, staff and students can best be protected. Cooper said the state is looking to get more input from teachers and others who are “on the ground” to ensure all of the requirements are understood.
“I think it’s important to get as much buy-in we possibly can across the board before we announce decisions,” Cooper said.
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen added that emerging evidence and international research shows that schools have not played a significant role in the spreading of COVID-19.
“Children, particularly younger children, are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19,” Cohen said. “For children who do become infected with COVID-19, they seem to be less likely to transmit it to others. We will continue to have to evaluate the scientific research carefully on this, but the current science is encouraging.”
Cooper added that decisions will also need to be made at the local level as school districts are different. He said some school systems want the state to direct them exactly on what to follow, while others want more flexibility.
WCS solicited input from Watauga parents via a survey that was open from June 17-25. Of the 2,665 responses, Elliott said more than 1,200 of the parents provided comments on topics such as scheduling options, remote learning, mask wearing and the cleaning and sanitizing of school facilities. Feedback was diverse and included some very strong opinions, Elliott said.
According to Elliott, around 24 percent of parents who responded to the survey indicated that they would not feel comfortable returning their children to school under the state’s Plan A. He added that this was reflective of what other school districts who have conducted their own re-entry surveys have gathered as well.
“Parents are showing support for options that get students back in school but do so with the greatest consideration for their health and safety,” Elliott said.
Elliott said that one of the primary purposes of the survey was to plan for the “real possibility” that Cooper would order schools to re-open under a 50 percent capacity scenario under Plan B. Elliott said leaders would have to consider a lot of variables for a Plan B, such as bus transportation, meals, facility sanitation, protective measures for staff, managing alternating schedules, child care and ensuring an adequate number of staff to pull it all off.
“This will be the most difficult plan to implement, but we want to implement a plan that is as safe and as manageable as possible,” Elliott said. “Many of the other school superintendents I speak with tell me that a Plan B scenario is simply not logistically possible in their districts.”
Parents who responded to the survey indicated that that they prefer a scheduling option that provides the greatest consistency for students while also allowing for time for the proper cleaning of classrooms and school facilities. If operating on a Plan B option, the survey offered parents four options: half days every day (half of students attending in the morning, half in the afternoon); full days alternating every other day; full days alternating every other week (attending one week, remote learning from home one week); or full days alternating every two weeks (attending two weeks, remote learning from home two weeks). The survey also allowed parents to select if none of the above options were preferable.
Elliott said that a significant majority of the parents mentioned that they do not think that an option with a two-week on/two-week off schedule would be effective academically or would be manageable with family schedules. Parents gave a similar response to a schedule option that would split each school day into two parts with some students attending class in the morning and others in the afternoon.
The greatest parent support was shown for an option that would have students in school on a staggered schedule — such as every other day in school with remote learning options when not in school — which would allow for school buildings to be wholly cleaned and sanitized when no students are in attendance.
An option that was not offered on the survey but was offered by parent responses was the use of a model that would have half the students attending for two days in a row, a day of cleaning and then the other half of students attending for two days in a row. Elliott said this 2x3 flex-type schedule “makes a lot of sense.” It would offer two days at school and three days off, with some students attending on a Monday and Tuesday; other students would attend on a Thursday and Friday.
Elliott said this type of model would provide consistency from week to week, allow for adequate cleaning without students present and would be more manageable for student transportation and meals.He added that WCS would be looking at the 2x3 schedule if the state chooses the Plan B option.
Keeping siblings on the same schedules to the greatest extent possible was important to parents, Elliott said. He added that officials “heard loud and clear” that child care will be a significant concern for many parents — including WCS’s own employees.
“This will need to be a community-wide effort to help parents manage the return to school if schools do not operate on a full-time basis,” Elliott said. “We will be reaching out to churches, nonprofit organizations, the county and existing child care providers to try to expand the options available to families.”
Elliott said school officials are also aware that some parents are not comfortable returning students to school under any scenario. WCS will have an all remote option available for “as many students as possible,” he said.
Aside from the schedule options, Elliott said parents expressed varying and strong opinions about face coverings for students and staff. Original guidance provided in the DHHS toolkit released on June 8 stated that cloth face coverings were recommended but not required by staff and students (particularly older students). However, Cooper’s June 24 order mandating face masks to be worn in public would now require all adults and students in middle and high schools to wear masks. Elliott said elementary age children may wear masks but are not required to under the order. These regulations could be subject to change based on COVID-19 metrics, he added.
According to Cooper, state emergency management and public health staff recently began delivering a two-month supply of medical grade protective wear to schools across North Carolina. Face shields, gowns and other gear will be given to school nurses and staff who are providing health care to children while they’re at school. He added that the state has also given schools access to statewide contracts to easily purchase other health supplies.
School officials still need time to analyze survey results, Elliott said. School-specific results have been provided to each principal for their own review. Elliott planned to present a recommendation for WCS operations to the Watauga Board of Education in July.