BOONE — Families have mixed reactions to the Watauga Board of Education’s July 28 decision to modify its 2x3 flex-type schedule originally chosen for the fall and to postpone in-person instruction for most students for at least nine weeks.
The plan for Watauga County Schools originally was to return to in-person instruction on Aug. 17 with students in the school buildings two days a week and learning remotely three days — students would have participated in learning all five days. The modified plan would require that most students would be remote learning through at least Oct. 19.
Superintendent Scott Elliott said that school officials have invested a great deal of time and energy into plans for reopening schools under Gov. Roy Cooper's Plan B schedule. Plan B — the option of three possible plans that the state approved — will require safety protocols such as face coverings for all K-12 students, fewer children in the classroom and social distancing measures in buildings.
"Of all the plans available to us, Plan B is the most challenging to implement but it gives us the best opportunity to meet the many different needs of our students," Elliott stated. “Unfortunately, right now our local public health trends continue to move in the wrong direction. After extensive conversations with our local public health partners and after hearing the concerns of many of our staff members and parents, I think this modified plan gives us our best chance to get students back into school safely as soon as possible.”
Class assignments for students will be made available at 5 p.m. on Aug. 10. Elliott said school officials were waiting to make final schedules until after families had made decisions regarding possible participation in the all-online Watauga Virtual Academy — an option to families who did not want students to return to in-person instruction this fall. Families who applied for the Watauga Virtual Academy were to be contacted by school personnel by Aug. 5 and given the option to decline WVA if they have changed their mind since applying. All students in kindergarten through 12th grade on the 2x3 flex plan will start the school year in an all-remote format on Aug. 17.
Elliott was not sure of the number of families who had since switched to the 2x3 (remote until October) option as of Aug. 4, but said he didn’t think it was a substantial number. The WVA students will also begin on Aug. 17 and will remain in the WVA through the end of the first semester.
According to WCS, roughly 929 students — about 20 percent of the school system’s enrollment — sent in applications for the WVA. Of this total, 267 applications were for the high school, 201 for Hardin Park, 102 were at Valle Crucis, 99 at Parkway, 87 for Green Valley, 79 at Blowing Rock, 53 at Cove Creek, 22 at Mabel and 19 at Bethel. Of the 929 applicants, 51.9 percent requested WVA for the whole school year while 48.1 percent requested for the first semester.
“We realize the change to remote learning for the first nine weeks will cause some families to rethink their enrollment in the virtual academy,” Elliott said. “Once those decisions are made, we ask families to stick with those plans for at least the first semester. We will not be able to reschedule students, teachers and courses once we make those decisions based on start-of-year numbers.”
Since the school’s announcement, Elliott said reactions from families have been mixed as families will be impacted in different ways. Many families Elliott had heard from were relieved after learning of the school system’s decision, while others voiced that the decision will create significant hardships for them, Elliott said.
The new school year also means the end of the drive-thru food site program the school system had been operating since March 17 to provide more than 249,000 free meals to local children. Elliott said the federal meal program that allowed WCS to be able to provide meals for free ended at the end of July, and does not extend into the new school year. WCS was awaiting information from the state on whether a new federal waiver will be granted to resume the meal program to offer free meals.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to provide meals for those who would like to order them and those who can afford it,” Elliott said. “Right now, unless something changes, we have to operate under the national school lunch program rules — which means children who are free and reduced can get free and reduced lunch meals, all of the others must pay. Our intention right now is to provide meals, but how many, to who and whether or not they will be free is still to be determined.”
The board heard from three in-person speakers during the July 28 meeting, all of whom voiced that they would appreciate students returning to in-person instruction in some capacity. Elliott handed out a stack of hundreds of printed public comments to the board for their viewing during the meeting.
WCS eighth-grader Clayo Kulczyk was the first to speak to the board, and told of a story he had heard of a family living in a German community during World War II who were afraid of the threat of being bombed. The story he told consisted of the family living in fear, and of a father who noticed that the fear was "destroying them from the inside out."
"He wanted his children to be doing what they loved," Kulczyk said, "We need to live life, or at the very least have an option to. If this virus comes for me, let it find me doing sensible human things: praying, working, learning, reading, listening to music, playing basketball with my friends, learning math and history with my fellow eighth-graders or cheering on our high school pioneers — not huddled in my home afraid. I need to go back to school. I need to be with my peers. I need in-school learning to be an option for me."
As the father of a 12-year-old with Down syndrome, Michael Ackerman said he couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of professionals to work with his child who attends Hardin Park. He was concerned that changes to in-person learning would negatively impact his daughter, as she needs a classroom environment to learn. He explained that he and his wife weren't equipped to provide their daughter with the specialized education she needs.
"Please weigh the importance of our children being in school against the actual data, not fear," Ackerman said. "Please do not apply the one-size-fits-all, because it does not."
In roughly six to seven weeks, the board plans to meet again to discuss whether or not students will be able to return to in-person instruction after Oct. 19 under the 2x3 flex schedule. Elliott said the hope was to make a decision about the possible return to in-person learning by the beginning of October so that families have about a two-week notice.
Elliott explained that, while the school system is starting the year remotely, it is not exactly adopting the state’s all-remote Plan C protocols.
“We will continue to operate under the Plan B safety protocols but with an emphasis on serving the students most in need of school-based services while most other students are at home full time,” Elliott said. “Teachers and staff will work from the school building to ensure they have access to all their resources, time to plan together and the opportunity to see small numbers of students as needed.”
New employee orientation was to take place Aug. 5-6, with all teachers returning to school for the first teacher work day on Aug. 10. Elliott said almost all WCS staff are working from schools, with a small number of employees with chronic health conditions who have requested leave or other accommodations. Educators teaching in the WVA will also be working from the schools, he said. It is the school system’s full intention to maintain all of its staff, but that will be determined by enrollment numbers and state funding, Elliott said.
School officials will allow small numbers of students to come to the school site by appointment to receive specialized assistance and support. These likely will include support for students with disabilities, students who need counseling and therapeutic services and students who need access to high-speed internet to download assignments and upload completed work.
The school system will also allow students in each of the district’s eight pre-K programs to attend school in person. Elliott said principals and teachers at a pre-k or special needs student’s designated school would contact families directly to discuss in-person options.
Board of Education Chairman Ron Henries praised the revised plan as he said the plan strikes the right balance between protecting staff and students while also providing some needed services to students who "suffer through remote instruction."
"I applaud Superintendent Elliott and his staff for listening to all the concerns and considering all the options," Henries said. "There are some students who need support that can only be provided at school, and hopefully conditions will allow those students to be served in a safe way.”
Elliott commented on the monumental task ahead, and said while guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is intended to help protect students and staff, it will be difficult to implement.
"The guidance seems to be changing daily," Elliott said. "This phased reopening will give our staff the opportunity to slowly implement those protocols while giving public health officials more time to monitor changing conditions in the community.”
Elliott explained some logistical challenges that schools face when preparing for students' return to school in person. For example, schools would need to place one student per seat on a bus. Henries asked if WCS had enough buses in the fleet to pick up 50 percent of the school system's children on a daily basis. Elliott responded by saying that some buses may need to run double routes to ensure they were able to pick up students while maintaining social distancing.
At the same time, Elliott said the schools didn't currently have enough laptop devices to ensure that each student in K-12 could have one. The school was able to use Chromebooks from surrounding schools in the spring to deploy them out to every student in third through 12th grades. WCS ordered 400 Chromebooks in April, but as of Aug. 4 the order had still not shipped. Elliott said that the school system then canceled that order, and submitted another order for a different type of device with the expectation for them to arrive in three weeks primarily for use by kindergarten through second-graders.
“Teachers will work with those families either with printed materials or in using their personal devices to connect to the teachers until we get those devices in,” Elliott said.
The decision to use the modified Plan B came after a recommendation from Watauga County’s local health department — AppHealthCare — that schools consider delaying the start to in-person instruction for students while the county monitors what has been an upward trend in COVID-19 cases.
“We continue to see our numbers of positive COVID cases going up,” stated AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene. “While we currently have a lower impact from cases than in other areas of the state, these are the kinds of decisions which will hopefully keep our community from becoming one of those hot spots.”
Board member Steve Combs mentioned that Appalachian State University students may be returning in August, and officials aren't sure what the influx of people in the county will do to the local case number. He equated what officials think could be a rise in cases in the next few months to a "storm that you know is coming," and the modified plan gives school officials "an opportunity to get through the storm and see what’s on the other side."
Greene said that she and Elliott agree that the best thing for students is for them to be in school.
"We are seeing many different health concerns emerging among children in our community because of this interruption to their lives," Greene said. "School is a safe and healthy place where so many needs are met. We will continue to support the school system to move forward with their plan to get students back into the school buildings as soon as possible.”
Greene also acknowledged the COVID-19 cases among young adults aged 18 to 24 and concerns about the return of students to Appalachian State in the coming weeks.
“The nine-week remote start for the school system will allow us to monitor changing community spread of the virus and determine the impact on our school families," Greene said.
Elliott said the board’s decision to begin schools with a period of remote learning was difficult, but necessary in light of the county’s COVID-19 metrics and guidance from AppHealthCare.
Elliott said that while the system preferred to have students back in school buildings, he was confident that lessons learned over the remote learning period in the spring would ensure that students would have better experience in the coming nine weeks.
“When we entered remote learning in March, our teachers had only a few days to prepare,” Elliott said. “Given that immense time constraint and workload, they did an outstanding job. As we go into remote learning this fall, I’m confident that our teachers and students will be even better prepared to have a positive and productive remote learning experience.”