PITTSBORO — At a lengthy and agenda-packed meeting Monday evening, the Chatham County Board of Education reorganized its board, discussed COVID-19 school data and made a motion allowing …
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PITTSBORO — At a lengthy and agenda-packed meeting Monday evening, the Chatham County Board of Education reorganized its board, discussed COVID-19 school data and made a motion allowing co-curricular activities such as band to proceed — all before voting in closed session to hire an interim superintendent to fill the void left by the departure of Dr. Derrick Jordan.
The meeting began with the swearing in of recently re-elected board members Melissa Hlavac and David Hamm, and then proceeded to the reorganization of the board. The board re-elected Gary Leonard as BOE chairperson and elected board member Del Turner as vice chairperson.
“This is a different kind of meeting,” Leonard said shortly after being re-elected as chairperson. “It’s bittersweet. Our superintendent has taken a job elsewhere and will be leaving us after being here since 2008.”
Several board members then honored Superintendent Jordan, who will join the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction in early 2021. At the time of the meeting, Leonard said the board was in the process of identifying an interim superintendent — and by Tuesday morning, the board announced the appointment of Dr. Randy Bridges, who comes from Orange County Schools, as the interim superintendent of CCS, to start Jan. 11.
The board selected Bridges, the district’s Tuesday release said, for his extensive experience in public education and “his outstanding record as a successful superintendent.” Bridges was appointed at Orange County Schools as interim superintendent in June 2019, where he previously served as the superintendent from 1997 to 2002. He also served as interim superintendent of Lexington City Schools in 2018 and as superintendent for Florence School District One in South Carolina for three years before resigning in 2017.
“The core business of any successful educational institution is teaching and learning,” Bridges said in that release. “While we are in unsettling times, we must continue providing a quality education for our children. I look forward to joining Chatham County Schools and continuing its mission of Collectively Creating Success for all students.”
At Monday’s meeting, board members acknowledged that truly replacing Jordan would be a difficult feat.
“There’s going to be a void,” Hamm said. “We’re going to try to replace you and keep our system moving forward and improving.”
The bulk of the board’s COVID-19 updates — which the meeting’s agenda said “could include but not be limited to reopening progress and determination of any next steps’’ — consisted of a presentation from the ABC Science Collaborative. That project analyzes COVID-19-related data in partnership with Duke, UNC and surrounding school districts, including CCS.
Dr. Danny Benjamin, the presenter on behalf of ABC Science Collaborative, said the key question for school districts is whether or not opening schools will increase community spread of COVID-19. Out of 773 infections in schools the group has partnered with, there were 32 cases of secondary spread, he said — much lower than the rates of wider transmission across the state. At those rates, Benjamin said the group would expect to see 500-1,000 cases of secondary cases, meaning transmission within schools following state COVID-19 protocol is “extraordinarily low.”
“Even if we were to assume that there’s no value to in-person instruction and the only reason to have in-person instruction is to provide a space to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Benjamin said, “children and staff are likely to be better off in schools, provided that the district is compliant with the toolkit, the three W’s and the 12 principles.”
The 12 principles Benjamin mentioned were set by the group as standards for safe schools and include steps such as reporting COVID-19 data by week and school making a road map for contact tracing and testing, working with a third party to analyze data and more. While Benjamin said success in re-opening safely is determined by adherence to public health recommendations, following 12 principles can compliment that adherence.
He emphasized principle No. 7, fighting pandemic fatigue, and stressed trust in district compliance, especially among school staff and parents.
Emily Harrison, the parent of two students at Pittsboro Elementary, said she was particularly interested in the information from the ABC Science Collaborative going into the meeting.
“My initial response is there a great deal of cognitive dissonance between the rising community levels of the virus and the drive to return more members of our community into the school buildings,” she said, adding that the group’s suggestion that schools with high compliance are safer than the wider state doesn’t account for the spectrum of behaviors in N.C.
Harrison’s family is working and learning remotely, so for them, she said, returning to school would increase her kids’ risk.
“Twenty-five to 30% of Chatham families see it the same way and have chosen virtual academy,” she said, referencing district data that shows about 73% of students opting for in-person learning.
After the ABC Science Collaborative’s presentation, the district shared data on student achievement, revealing that failure rates are up 9.29% this year compared to last year. Last fall, the district said 12.56% of students were on the failure at-risk list (defined as having a D or F in any subject), and this fall, the higher rate ranged from as little as 2% to a whopping 49% in the district’s schools.
“This morning, I keep thinking about all the kids who are failing right now,” Harrison said on Tuesday. “What that would feel like and how frustrating that would be. The board thinks the answer is to get the kids into the classroom through Plan B. But that answer isn’t right for every family. And, with hybrid learning, the majority of the week is still remote learning ... students who are struggling right now are some of those suffering the most during this pandemic. They deserve more attention and conversation from our leaders than whether or not certain sports should be played on school grounds.”
The board briefly discussed the potential to put restrictions on sports travel, with board member Jane Allen Wilson eventually making a motion to follow the state’s guidelines to put a temporary hold on indoor sports activities for which “participants cannot maintain social distance and for which close contact is frequent/prolonged.” That motion failed 4-1, with Wilson voting in favor.
Soon after, Leonard made a motion that “co-curricular activities,” such as band, could proceed, providing they follow safety protocols and remain optional as to not impact student grades. That motion passed unanimously.
The board discussed making a new motion regarding the return of high school students to in-person learning, but decided to abide by previously passed motion and readdress at its January meeting if needed. For now, high schools students are set to return next semester, starting Jan. 21.
Here’s what else happened
Dr. Jordan recognized Vicky Tobar, who works as a translator at Jordan-Matthews High School, for being the Chatham County Association of Educators Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year in Chatham, as well as the North Carolina Association of Educators ESP of the year in North Carolina.
The district heard a presentation on its 2019-2020 Audit Report, which presenters said showed both a “good” governmental fund balance, as well as loss in school food services fund. The district said that fund is still in good shape so long as there aren’t multiple years of revenue losses.
The board approved a Superintendent Search Proposal from N.C. School Boards Association, which will begin the search for a permanent superintendent beginning in January. The cost for a superintendent search through NCSBA that is initiated during the 2020-2021 fiscal year is $21,500, that proposal said, plus any expenses incurred, such as advertising costs or mileage.
The board discussed enrollment continuation for new Seaforth High School, clarifying that “enrollment continuation” will replace the term “grandfathering,” citing the News & Observer’s Dec. 4 report on Wake County School’s decision to stop using the word because of its racist origins. The board made the follow enrollment clarifications:
The next regular session/mid-year retreat for the Board of Education meeting will take place at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 11.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.