Chatham County Schools

More students to return Nov. 19, Dec. 7 under Plan B

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More students in Chatham will return to in-person learning under Plan B over the next month, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education decided at its regular meeting Monday night.

After a lengthy discussion surrounding the timing and population of such a decision, the board voted 4-1 for students in 3rd-5th grade to return Nov. 19, with students in 6th-8th to return Dec. 7. For now, high schoolers will remain in Plan C through Jan. 15 — in accordance with the board’s Sept. 23 decision to extend Plan C past the original nine-week time frame to the end of the semester in January.

Since last March, most of Chatham County Schools have been in fully remote learning, but some students returned to school on Oct. 19, following the board’s unanimous Sept. 29 vote to send Extended Content Standard E.C. students, Pre-K students and K-2 students to school under hybrid learning. Last month, the board decided to try to make a timeline decision for sending additional groups of students back to school at Monday’s Nov. 9 meeting. At the time, the board indicated the earliest more students could move to Plan B would be Nov. 30.

“I thought things were going really well in the schools,” board chairperson Gary Leonard said during the meeting, regarding his visits to the schools operating under a partial Plan B. “I still feel like we can make moves to bring (grades) 3-5 back. I think we need to.”

“And when I say that,” Leonard added, “I’m just thinking, taking it in steps I think allows our schools and our personnel and our children time to work through things, because anytime you add more people that changes the dynamics, and right now the dynamics seem to be working in K-2.”

During prior discussions, each board member has consistently prioritized student and staff safety while working to balance that with a return to face-to-face instruction, especially as the semester progressed. The board’s decision to initially send back a small group of younger students was made in the hopes that the district would have qualitative and quantitative data available to discern how well cleaning and social distancing protocols were working.

According to the district’s COVID-19 tracking page, there have been 16 positive COVID-19 cases among staff members and four student cases since Aug. 17 (not Oct. 19, as incorrectly stated in a News + Record article last week). It’s unclear how many of those cases have been reported since the district partially reopened under Plan B, as the spreadsheet was posted last month around the same time schools reopened. At Monday’s meeting, the district clarified that student data only tracks cases of students who have been in the school building, effectively meaning student data reflects cases since Oct. 19. These cases have been spread out among the county’s schools and there are no reported clusters.

Interim Health Director Mike Zelek spoke to the rising trends of COVID-19 across the state and in Chatham; there have been 2,084 cases in Chatham, with 112 cases reported since Nov. 1, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard. In North Carolina, the state has averaged more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day for three weeks now.

“It is about data. But it’s not just about data,” Zelek said regarding how those “concerning trends” could impact the board’s decision. “It’s about how well schools can consistently and correctly implement the guidance that they’ve laid out, and I know we’ve been working with them for several months now to fine tune that guidance that comes from the state and the CDC.”

Prior to a motion being made, some board members expressed interest in also sending 6th and 9th grade students back, along with 3rd-5th graders, in the interest of getting students who are new to a school into their buildings. After talking about potential concerns at the middle and high school level in isolating certain grade levels, the board’s discussion pivoted to including entire grade-level ranges.

“I think that if the move is to bring kids back,” Superintendent Derrick Jordan clarified when asked his opinion, “I think the more separations you have, the more potential for unrest and more dissatisfaction.”

There were multiple motions made, but only two were voted upon. The first, made by board member David Hamm to send students in 3rd-8th grade back on Nov. 19, did not pass. After that, board member Del Turner made the motion that would pass: sending 3rd-5th graders back to school under Plan B on Nov. 19 and 6th-8th graders on Dec. 7. Hamm was the only member to dissent.

In the last 20 minutes of its meeting, the board also approved the 2020-21 School Improvement Plans, an ESL Testing Plan and a request from Chatham County Parks and Recreation to resume use of facilities for youth basketball. The board then met in closed session to discuss personnel, emergency response and school improvement safety and crisis plans.

Reactions to the board’s decision to send more students back seemed mostly positive on social media, though those critical of the school’s previous reopening plans likely still view the decision as a safety threat for families and CCS employees. During the meeting, Hamm acknowledged this, emphasizing the range of conflicting opinions each board member receives surrounding its decisions.

“Great job Chatham County Schools!!!!” one person commented on the News + Record’s Facebook meeting update. “My kids are so glad.”

The next group of students will return under Plan B next Thursday.

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

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