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Dennis optimistic that with safeguards, school year will be easier than last

As students, parents and staff prepare for the start of another school year, there is still much uncertainty as to what the year will look like as coronavirus cases continue to increase as a result of the delta variant.

Several districts in the region that have recently reopened have already been impacted by the pandemic. In Rowan County, for example, which began public school last week, more than 60 cases have popped up, resulting in at least 750 quarantines, according to the Salisbury Post. A charter school in Union County meanwhile has dealt with more than 100 cases since late July.

Both these counties began school with masks optional, though Rowan’s school board reversed course this week and now requires masks.

Stanly County hopes to avoid many of the Covid-related problems that have already befallen those districts and others across the country.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis.

In order to ensure students stay in school, the Stanly County Board of Education voted to require masks to begin the school year. Even though it remains a highly unpopular decision among large swaths of the county — many of whom voiced their displeasure during the board meeting a few weeks ago — Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis believes it was the right call.

“We would like everyone to be patient and understanding as we try our best to keep our students in schools, and provide key face-to-face instruction,” he said this week. “I know many people feel differently about this issue, but it is important that students receive as much valuable in-person instruction as possible.”

Hoping for more of a return to normalcy, at least compared to last year, Dennis is cautiously optimistic that by putting in place safeguards such as mask-wearing, students and staff can complete the school year with minimal interferences such as quarantines and contract tracing.

For the first time since March of last year, Dennis noted, all students will be back in-person for school, as there is no remote option, though the school system’s online school SCoVE will still be in place.

And for now, wearing masks is an option to ensure kids remain in school. According to the Strong School NC Public Health Tool Kit, as long as everyone wears masks, only students who contract the virus would have to quarantine. Everyone else will be able to remain in school.

The school board has given Dennis the authority to make masks optional once the county’s percent positive rate drops below 7.9 percent. It is currently above 16 percent.

Though there is no official policy, Dennis said individual teachers have the latitude to allow their students to briefly take their masks off as needed throughout the day.

The biggest protection against COVID-19, though, is getting vaccinated. There are only 12 percent of children 12 to 17 in Stanly who are fully vaccinated, according to state data, far below the state’s overall rate of 30 percent. Similar to masks, fully vaccinated individuals in schools do not have to quarantine after close contact.

The school system, which continues to work closely with the Stanly County Health Department, is finalizing protocols surrounding what to do if outbreaks occur and quarantines are needed. This includes plans to accommodate students working from home.

SCS is also working to create an online dashboard for the public that will be updated whenever outbreaks and quarantines occur.

Aside from the threat of COVID outbreaks, there are about 65 positions, including many teaching roles, that are currently unfilled, according to the school system’s website — an issue, Dennis said, that districts across the country are facing. Certain schools have teaching positions that have become vacant for the first time.

There are many reasons for the shortage, Jenkins mentioned, including teachers leaving the profession due to issues regarding pay or health worries and not enough people entering the field to begin with.

“You talk about scraping at the bottom of the barrel, we’ve scraped the bottom, we’ve turned it over and scraped it again,” Dennis said. “There’s just no applicants there.”

To help alleviate the problem, the school system is looking at several options, including bringing in retired teachers, utilizing substitutes and empowering teacher assistants.

“We have some pretty creative solutions,” Dennis said.

Though the district could always use more bus drivers, there are currently enough to where buses won’t have to run split routes, though the situation is fluid and could still change.

“Every bus will have its own route and not have to run two different routes to the same school,” Dennis 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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