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The Chatham County Board of Education unanimously passed two highly anticipated motions at its regular meeting Monday: to extend Plan C at the county’s public schools from four weeks to nine weeks and to approve Scenario Three for Seaforth High School’s attendance zone.
These decisions follow the board’s last regular session meeting on July 16, when after a long back-and-forth discussion on reopening school strategies, it voted to go the fully remote learning option for four weeks in the fall. Later in that meeting, the board pushed the final decision on the Seaforth attendance zone to Monday’s meeting.
Due to meeting size limitations to slow the spread of COVID-19, the board’s meeting was livestreamed through YouTube. The public chat feature adjacent to the live stream — which was very active at last month’s meeting and featured criticism of the board — was disabled at Monday’s meeting.
Prior to the board’s motion to extend Plan C to nine weeks, proposed by board member Melissa Hlavac, CCS Superintendent Derrick Jordan and Interim Health Director Mike Zelek gave brief remarks regarding the decision making process for both CCS and the county, in regards to slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Amanda Hartness, the CCS assistance superintendent for academic services and instructional support, also provided updates on Chatham County Schools Virtual Academy (CCSVA), which she said had received 2,140 applications — with 241 of those coming in after the district’s Aug. 3 soft deadline for applications. Due to the complexities of planning for both remote learning and CCSVA, Hartness said the district was considering starting all K-8 grade students remotely at their base schools, while high school students could start through CCSVA. The demand for virtual academy would create challenges in staffing elementary schools otherwise, she said.
Jordan added that though face-to-face instruction is ideal, the district is much better prepared to provide remote instruction this semester than they were in March.
“Folks should expect it to be absolutely better than what it was,” Jordan said, adding that additional structure to remote learning this semester — attendance and grading policies, for example — were a big part of that. “It won’t be perfect. There will still be hiccups. But I see that folks will be better positioned to navigate given the lessons that we were able to learn as a result of the quick pivot last semester.”
Following this discussion, Hlavac made a motion to extending the district’s Plan C time period beyond four weeks. Board member David Hamm seconded the motion, suggesting the adopted time period should be nine weeks, in line with the school’s grading periods.
“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but unfortunately, we will probably be going to the full semester, but this buys us a little more time and I think going full semester at this juncture in time might be a little premature,” Hamm said.
Board member Jane Allen Wilson agreed but encouraged the board to make a decision regarding the remainder of the semester as soon as possible for the sake of parents and students.
The attendance zoning decision for Seaforth has been controversial, with many parents and community members expressing concern about the potential loss of resources at Northwood based on certain scenarios. During the meeting’s public comment session, citizens echoed the sentiment of prior input sessions by overwhelmingly supporting Scenario Two, stating significant concern about other options that would “cluster affluence” at Seaforth.
CCS partnered with N.C. State’s Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd), a third-party evaluation research group that assists with school planning processes, to gather data to help make the rezoning decision. The district also hosted four community input sessions in January and February for parents of current pre-kindergarten through ninth grade students.
Prior to the board’s discussion, Jordan emphasized his desire to come to the most equitable zoning decision.
“Zoning, as you well know, is one of the most potentially most divisive topics a board can undertake,” he said, adding that is why the board took “more runway than is normally the case” to come to a decision. “I echo the sentiments we have heard, as I know you do, too, that your desire to not in any way create segregated schools and/or schools that are not balanced to the extent reasonable.”
After the July 16 meeting and before Monday’s meeting, an additional scenario was added for the board’s consideration — Scenario Six. Scenario Two zones Briar Chapel to Northwood and all of Chatham Park to Seaforth, and based on demographic data provided by OREd, would yield slighly more racial and socioeconomic diversity than the other scenarios; under Scenario Two, OREd projected 60.7% white students at Seaforth and 65% at Northwood, while under Scenario Three there would be 64.2% white students at Seaforth 62.3% at Northwood. In regards to socioeconomic diversity, Scenario Two would have 34.5% of Seaforth students receiving free and reduced lunch and 24% of Northwood students. Under Scenario Three, those trends are flipped, with 24.9% of Seaforth students receiving free and reduced lunch and 34.5% of Northwood students.
Scenario Three zones Briar Chapel to Seaforth and Chatham Park splits between Northwood and Seaforth. During the presentation, OREd Project Manager Thomas Dudley said Scenario Six was the same as Scenario Three but with Briar Chapel added to Northwood and the southern part of Chatham zoned to Seaforth.
During the public input session, several residents expressed doubts with the data provided by OREd, and said more information about how the numbers would play out in five to 10 years should’ve been included. Prior to making the motion to pass Scenario 3, Hamm said he didn’t see much difference between the remaining scenarios.
“I really wrestled over how and why Scenario 2 takes away and fixes all racial situations,” he said. “I don’t see it.”
Hamm then made the motion to adopt Scenario Three; board member Del Turner seconded it. Hlavac proposed eventually discussing implementing a grandfathering plan “like we’ve done in the past.” Before casting her vote, Wilson referenced the public’s disapproval of Scenario 3.
“I know this board has been deeply concerned and interested in equity issues and in working on equity issues,” she said. “So it’s very difficult when when there’s a public perception that we’re trying to marry with researchers’ perceptions and looking at all these numbers — I just hope the conversation can be ongoing about some of the equity matters after the vote.”
Turner added: “I did make the comment before the last meeting that it was logistically impossible to achieve racial equity in Chatham County because of the populations and because of the geographical dispersion. So that is what it is. It’s not going to change, and there’s nothing that can stretch it to make it different.”
The board did not explicitly discuss why they were choosing Scenario Three over Scenario Two, even with Scenario Two having slightly more diverse demographic projections.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.