BOE discusses county connectivity, to host special COVID-19 meeting

Posted 9/18/20

The Chatham County Schools Board of Education held its regular session meeting Monday night, discussing, among many things, equity initiatives and efforts to support student connectivity within the …

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BOE discusses county connectivity, to host special COVID-19 meeting

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The Chatham County Schools Board of Education held its regular session meeting Monday night, discussing, among many things, equity initiatives and efforts to support student connectivity within the district.

The board also re-announced its special COVID-19 meeting, which will take place Thursday to receive updates and make any related decisions for the remainder of the semester.

At the board’s last regular session meeting on Aug. 10, it extended CCS’ remote learning plan from four weeks to nine. If not extended, that plan is set to expire the second to last week of October.

“It’s just too much to fathom sometimes what we’ve gone through in the last six months,” chairperson Gary Leonard said before calling for a moment of silence to begin the meeting. “And probably within this room, there’s enough people that can give personal stories beyond what we see in the news. This whole situation has affected us in many different ways, and at this time, let’s remember all those that have passed away, those that are still in the hospital and for those at home that are dealing with their students and online learning. As a grandparent, I’m dealing with that too. It’s been something to experience.”

The board unanimously approved a proposal for health sciences assessments as well as the district’s 2020-21 local testing plan — due to the State Board of Education by Oct. 1. Amanda Hartness, the assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support, also presented Chatham Grove Elementary’s Schools new Gators mascot logo and branding book.

Prior to the board’s new business items, CCS Superintendent Derrick Jordan recognized the district’s teaching awards — teacher of the year, Angela Vanore, beginning teacher of the year Charles Byrd and instructional assistant of the year Kristen Garner.

“Congratulations to all three of our honorees,” Jordan said. “We could not be more proud of the job they do day in and day out for our students and families. We are so appreciative of their willingness to share their time and their talent, and we’re looking forward to the continued opportunity share with them.”

‘We never finish this work’

As the first item of new business, the board heard and update from CCS’ Equity and Excellence for Everyone Core Team, a team comprised of a variety of stakeholders from each school that meets monthly to discuss equity strategies and planning. The group was formed nearly six years ago, Hartness said, and its main goals for its equity plan are to explore barriers within the district, take ownership for factors schools can control and foster community partnerships to help address external barriers to school access.

During the presentation, Jordan addressed the school resource officers in the district, and said he wanted to highlight — referencing conversations taking place about SROs and law enforcement generally — that “the folks at the sheriff’s office” have been very open to conversations of improving equity. In terms of grading and code of conduct, Jordan said the district is working to eliminate the potential for ambiguity, so that grading is based on mastery of skills alone.

“This is work that is always going to be ongoing,” Jordan said. “We never finish this work. I’m so proud of what has happened in way of grading and code of conduct, but we can’t rest — there is still additional work to be done.”

Jordan emphasized his hopes that equity efforts would really “tap into” Chatham’s community partner resources more tangibly in years to come, stressing that the district wants to organize partners in a way that allows them to contribute with all the other projects they’re involved in. Board members Melissa Hlavac and Jane Allen Wilson both praised the district’s equity efforts, specifically thanking presenters for mentioning the work still to be done.

“Again, I want to just note that much more work needs to be done. But we certainly didn’t start yesterday — I’m proud of what has happened and am very, very aware that this requires ongoing work,” Jordan said. “We don’t get it all right, but we certainly are committed to doing what we can to right what we get wrong.”

‘Underscores the reality in Chatham’

The board also heard updates regarding the CCS Technology Services Division’s efforts to improve student connectivity since the move to remote learning last March, presented by Hartness and Executive Director for Digital Teaching and Learning Emma Braaten.

“Obviously, we know since the spring we’ve been in remote learning and some of the feedback that we heard from families was the challenges that we have for connectivity in Chatham,” Hartness said. “Some of those we can work to resolve and some of those are a little bit outside of our control.”

The district has distributed nearly 1,000 hotspots since the spring, Hartness said, and is in the final stages of coordinating bus hotspot locations for 42 buses. However, both of these solutions depend on a location having adequate cell phone service in order for the hotspot to work. Hartness said CCS has spent around $66,000 on hotspots — as well as around $9,000 a month for service fees for those devices. The district has purchased $53,000 worth of state-provided Wi-Fi devices, with installation costs for those running at around $10,000. The district has gotten funding for most of the devices, she said, but has to come up with their own funding for service fees. Those costs do not include the district’s “normal ongoing connectivity costs,” she said.

Hlavac asked for an estimate of how many students are still having connectivity issues, in spite of the district’s efforts. Hartness said this was tricky to estimate, because many students with connectivity issues are able to access their school’s remote learning by using various free Wi-Fi locations in the community. Looking strictly at how many students are taking advantage of the paper-only learning options, Hartness said most schools had an average of 2 to 3% of students without access, with the highest percentage of any school at 5%. Schools in the Siler City zoning pattern have a higher percentage of students without access, she said.

Braaten said the district will work to secure extra funding once the current wave of distribution is completed, to get devices to any additional families that are still in need.

“I just wanted to also underscore that the connectivity issue is not just a socio-economic issue,” Jordan said. “We find that some folks who might qualify for free/reduced lunch may very well have access to the internet and some folks who would never qualify for free or reduced lunch don’t have access to the internet. That just underscores the reality in Chatham.”

The board’s special session meeting Thursday regarding the coronavirus will take place at 4 p.m. at Horton Middle School in the multipurpose room and will also be livestreamed. All health and safety requirements will be followed in order to attend, the board’s website said, and symptom screenings will be conducted upon entry. The board currently does not have any follow-up special meetings scheduled, but Leonard said that it wouldn’t be a problem to schedule later if so needed.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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