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School Board votes for a delayed return to in-person learning after holiday break

With the continued surge in new COVID-19 cases across the county, the school board, during a special called meeting Wednesday evening, voted to adopt a delayed return to face-to-face interaction until after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The plan is to have students shift to all remote learning from Jan. 7 through Jan. 14. The students would return to school on Jan. 19. The students will still be operating under their current schedules throughout the rest of 2020.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis said the school board could always adjust the plan as needed in January if more remote time is needed. The health department also recommended the delayed return.

During the remote period, staff would still report to their assigned sites while students will have the option to participate in athletics at high school level. It would allow transportation staff time to plan for additional bus riders returning for face-to-face and would give teachers time to organize their classrooms.

Even with kids working remotely, families will be able to pick up meals at the four middle schools from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., similar to the system that occurred during the early months of the pandemic and the summer.

In data presented to the board, Dennis said 505 students are currently in quarantine, with 179 having tested positive since mid-July, while 94 staff members are in quarantine, with 86 having tested positive since mid-July. A total of 21 additional students were placed in quarantine on Dec. 16 while three new positive cases popped up.

With so many teachers spending weeks in quarantine, substitute fill rates have been stretched and have been as low as 84 percent in recent days. Athletic events have also been canceled due to positive tests. Five coaches and 13 athletes have tested positive, while six teams have been quarantined.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a classroom teacher, an administrator, a secretary at one of the schools or a data manager…it’s been stressful on everyone from the standpoint that life as you knew it is no longer the same and it will continue to be no longer the same for the foreseeable future,” said Chairman Jeff Chance.

Dennis said that while he’s been “amazed” at how well staff members have adapted this past year, “there’s no doubt there’s been a stress on them.”

Many of the board members, including Bill Sorenson, who until a few months ago was a teacher himself, mentioned how staff members are “burning themselves out” trying to accommodate both in-person and remote students. Board member Glenda Gibson said the school system under its current instructional plan “is killing our teachers and we’re doing a disservice to our students.”

While testing is recommended for people who have been exposed to someone who had the virus, it’s not required and many people can just sit out the two-week period before coming back to school, Beverly Pennington, director of student services, said. She added that there have been some reports of people not following quarantine protocols.

Due to the extensive contract tracing that’s taken place, Dennis stressed that new cases are originating from within the community as opposed to the schools.

“It is coming into the school and not propagating inside the school,” he said.

The delayed return to in-person learning was selected as a way to prevent the surge in new cases that will likely follow the Christmas holiday. Much of the current spike — the county surpassed 700 active cases for the first time this week — is likely a lagging result of the Thanksgiving holiday, where people traveled to spend time with family and friends, health officials have said.

There were two other two options presented to the board. The first was transitioning to remote only, which would present the least amount of exposure to students but could cause staff furloughs for non-certified employees like custodians and bus drivers. The other was keeping the status quo and changing nothing, which would cause major disruptions to schools, including some possibly shutting down, and would cause even more stress for teachers and staff.

Over the past few weeks, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Cabarrus County Schools made similar decisions to temporarily move back to remote learning, though both districts have already implemented it, while Rowan-Salisbury Schools decided to stick with its blended schedule of rotating between in-person and online learning.

Stanly County Schools previously went to full remote for a few weeks in October following the death of a Norwood Elementary teacher who had contracted the virus.

Board member Dr. Rufus Lefler stressed that the public would need to be more prudent about following health guidelines, such as mask-wearing, to help reduce the number of cases in the county and allow students to safely return to schools next semester.

“The public needs to understand…it’s going to be up to all of us in the whole community to be more careful, wear our masks even though we don’t want to and knock this thing down, otherwise it’s going to just keep going until everybody gets infected or until everybody gets a vaccine,” he said.

 

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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