At a specially-called meeting Tuesday night, the Chatham County Board of Education unanimously passed two motions: one approving in-person instruction under Plan B for Extended Content Standard E.C. …
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This story was updated on Oct. 6.
At a specially-called meeting Tuesday night, the Chatham County Board of Education unanimously passed two motions: one approving in-person instruction under Plan B for Extended Content Standard E.C. students, PreK students and K-2 students, and a second allowing the resumption of extracurricular activities.
The instruction exception will apply at the conclusion of the original nine weeks of remote learning, with those students able to begin in-person hybrid learning on Monday, Oct. 19. All other students will remain in the fully remote Plan C option, though the board indicated potentially phasing in other groups of students before the Jan. 15 date they decided on the week before.
The board’s motion regarding extracurriculars will allow high school volleyball and cross country teams to resume workouts Oct. 7, with future teams to start preseason workouts 20 to 30 days before their first practice date.
These decisions follow the board’s Sept. 23 motion, which passed 4-1, for the county’s schools to continue classes under the remote learning option through the end of the semester, which ends Jan. 15, 2021.
“Of course, this is definitely a difficult process and decision to make,” board chairperson Gary Leonard, the only member to dissent last week, said at that meeting. “We appreciate all of those who’ve been working with us.”
Last Tuesday’s meeting, specially called at last week’s meeting with the purpose of discussing exceptions to the Plan C decision, lasted two hours. The meeting began with a brief discussion on athletics from CCS district athletic director Chris Blice and a few questions from board members concerning scheduling and differences in middle school and high school athletic programs. Fifteen minutes into the meeting, the motion to resume extracurricular activities, made by Leonard, passed.
Discussion surrounding exemptions for subset student groups under Plan C was a different story.
Similarly to the broader discussion for all students the previous week, the presentation to the board began with survey results from PreK and Exceptional Children Teachers. That survey opened shortly after the board’s Sept. 23 meeting and was closed on Sept. 25. There were 140 responses.
At the board’s last meeting, concern over CCS employees’ feelings of readiness to return to in-person instruction dominated much of the board’s discussion, referencing a district-wide survey which showed nearly early 30% of respondents felt comfortable returning to in-person learning; 41% did not feel comfortable and 30% said they were unsure.
“I think those numbers are really glaring,” board member David Hamm said at that Sept. 23 meeting.
The E.C. and PreK teacher survey data presented Tuesday indicated that 42% (59 responses) felt comfortable “returning to in-person instruction with the students that I serve” while nearly 60% (81 responses) did not feel comfortable. Personal safety risks, concern about how to handle the additional workload and difficulty maintaining social distance with “these specific populations” requiring close care were among top reasons respondents gave for not feeling comfortable returning.
The board did not directly discuss these numbers.
After the presentation of this survey, CCS Exceptional Children Director Melvin Diggs clarified that in regards to E.C. students, the district was specifically looking at bringing Extended Content Standard students back — E.C. students with “significant cognittive disabilities.” This marks a slight difference from the “self contained” phrasing used at last week’s meeting. While he said these students often are self contained this category is slightly more precise in naming which students are affected by the decision.
Following some discussion about substitute teachers, board member Melissa Hlavac mentioned using a hybrid schedule as a more “measured approach” for K-2 students. At this point, the conversation seemed to include K-2 students in the discussion of making exceptions to Plan C. The agenda for Tuesday's meeting did not include K-2 students as one of the subset groups to be discussed.
Board member Jane Allen Wilson raised concerns that district surveys were completed before CCS employees had all the information about reopening plans — a sentiment board member David Hamm echoed.
“That survey was done before the teachers knew that ‘Aha,’” Hamm said regarding the initial survey CCS distributed to employees. “We’ve learned a lot in two weeks and have a chance to step back and re-evaluate and that’s I think that’s what we’re doing.”
The information referenced specifically by Hamm and Wilson were presented the week prior to the board’s Sept. 23 decision to remain in Plan C through the semester, when it heard updates on COVID-19 in the county and state on Sept. 17.
In an email to the News + Record, Wilson later clarified that it was the combination of that information — specifically the ABC Science Report — along with details the board learned in following weeks from school administration that made her feel comfortable with a phased-in hybrid approach.
“Before we could consider even our own very amended and limited version of Plan B, I needed to see that all the safety protocols and enforcement could be met,” Wilson wrote in that email. “I was not prepared to vote for anything other than C until we could have more assurances that the highly-specific safety recommendations would be followed to the letter and that we had considered every turn.”
CCS Superintendent Derrick Jordan clarified last Tuesday that the two groups surveyed for Tuesday’s meeting had access to information before responding — through the board’s meeting and a meeting hosted by the department — and “the results were the results.”
At this point, the board’s discussion indicated board members were considering a phased-in approach to Plan B for other student groups, earlier than the Jan. 15 date decided by the board the previous week. Board member Del Turner, who said last week that she wasn’t “going to entertain” Plan B, said she wanted younger students to come back to school because “in-person is the optimal learning for them.”
Following back-and-forth discussion related to different facets of Plan B at Tuesday’s meeting, the board planned to hear recommendations from CCS administration regarding a timeline for phasing in other age groups at its next regular session meeting on Oct. 12 — indicating the possibility that even high school students could begin in-person learning before the end of the semester.
The district clarified that Virtual Academy and remote learning options would be available for students under this phased-in approach, though it was said that switching back and forth between Virtual Academy and in-person learning would not be an option due to the number of scheduling changes involved to do so.
“Melissa mentioned it may turn sour, well it may turn real sweet and things are better,” Hamm said regarding Hlavac’s earlier suggestion to opt for a cautious phasing-in approach.
The board’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 12 comes one week before the Extended Content Standard E.C. students, PreK students and K-2 students are set to begin instruction under Plan B. This decision impacts just over 2,000 students: 98 PreK students, 134 E.C. students and 1,853 in K-2, along with staff and those students' teachers.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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