WATAUGA — The Watauga County Board of Education voted at a Feb. 22 special meeting to allow K-5 students in the classroom four days a week beginning March 8. The board voted 5-0 in favor of moving to Plan A.

Plan A still calls for social distancing, face coverings for all students, teachers and staff, but does not require schools to reduce the number of children in the classroom. It also allows for students to be in the classroom five days a week. WCS students in grades K-5 will be attending in person four days a week, for now.

Students in pre-K to second grade will go back to the classroom beginning March 8 on a Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday schedule. Wednesdays will be flex days for teachers to make appointments with students who need extra help or hold small work sessions. Schools are also cleaned on Wednesdays. No school days are added to the end of the year with Wednesdays being a flex day.

Third through fifth grade students will return to school beginning March 22 on the same schedule.

“I appreciate (that) the board has been so thoughtful in making this decision, but I also agree that it’s time,” Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said. “Our children learn best and are the healthiest when they are in school.”

The decision does not affect students attending the Watauga Virtual Academy

Elliott will still have the ability to transition a school or class back to remote learning if COVID-19 issues arise.

“I’m glad the board was able to move forward with a consensus decision,” said board member Marshall Ashcraft. “I think this will hopefully build some momentum for us moving forward.”

Watauga County students in grades K-5 are currently in Plan B of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which allows for some in-person instruction with two days of in-person and three days of virtual.

The gap in between the two-grade section allows for an adjustment period for students and staff to work out any problems with the new schedule.

One key issue for board members at previous meetings was that teachers had not received the COVID-19 vaccine yet. While the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control said vaccines for teachers is not a requisite for reopening schools, Elliott said it adds an extra layer of protection to help prevent COVID-19.

WCS employees were set to get their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Feb. 24 event at the Watauga Community Recreation Center. Those who get their shot on Feb. 24 will get their second shot on March 26.

“It’s more likely that our staff are going to be able to stay in school and work (after getting the vaccine),” Elliott told the board.

Jennifer Greene — health director at AppHealthCare — also provided a community update to the board and answered any questions board members had related to COVID-19 spread and vaccinations.

In information provided to the board by Elliott, the Wilkes County school system had to shut down three different schools due to staffing shortages. So far, Elliott told the board that no Watauga schools have had to shut down. Some cohorts were put in isolation and five of the eight Pre-K classes had to shut down at least once.

For transmission in schools, Elliott said the main issue — mainly at the beginning of the year — was transmission between teachers. There were very few cases of students transmitting COVID-19 to teachers.

One issue that the board discussed at its Feb. 8 meeting was how bus routes would work if K-5 students were in school for four days a week while sixth through eighth were still going two days a week.

Jeff Lyons, WCS transportation director, said it is possible with potentially two to four bus routes having to run twice as busses can only have one student per seat unless they are siblings. Lyons said more bus routes could have to run double as they evaluate it more.

Sixth grade through 12th grade is still in Plan B with in person classes two days a week.

Board member Steve Combs, who is the parent of a high school student, said he longs to bring back high schoolers to in person classes more than two days a week.

As of the week of Feb. 15, Elliott told the board that 104 employees and 213 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the week of Aug. 12.

“This is no small ask of our teachers, our bus drivers and our staff who work so hard to make sure our students are safe at school,” Elliott said. “I greatly appreciate all the hard that has gone into making it possible to keep our schools open all year and now for us to take this giant step forward in bringing more students back.”

Jeremy Barnes, who gave public comment to the board expressing his frustrations with not moving forward with more students in school, said he is glad the board voted to move into Plan A. Barnes has a daughter in fourth grade.

“I think it should have been done a little sooner,” Barnes said. “I’m happy to hear it. All (of) the kids getting back to school is important.”

Julie Gough, a parent of a student in eighth grade, is also happy with the board’s decision to move to Plan A for K-5, but wants the board to address the older grades.

“I’m very happy with all the hard work everyone has done,” Gough said. “I’m proud of our town and how we have handled it, but would like to see more progress.”

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