New state school reopening bill could slash CCS's Plan A timeline

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/10/21

Nearly a year after N.C. schools first closed last spring due to COVID-19, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education unanimously voted on Monday to send K-5 students back for in-person learning four days a week under Plan A.

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New state school reopening bill could slash CCS's Plan A timeline

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Nearly a year after N.C. schools first closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education unanimously voted on Monday to phase sending K-5 students back for in-person learning four days a week under Plan A.

But a deal reached Wednesday between Gov. Roy Cooper and the GOP requiring fully in-person instruction under Plan A for elementary schools under Senate Bill 220 could change those plans. That reopening bill — a revised version of an existing bill on graduation requirements — was unanimously passed by the Senate later that day; the House passed the bill 119-0 on Thursday. Cooper has already said he'd sign the bill this week, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Under the CCS board’s March 8 decision, EC and 504 students in grades K-5 would return March 16, with Pre-K through 3rd grade returning April 12 and 4th-5th on April 19. For all groups, Wednesday would continue to be a remote learning day to allow teachers extra planning time.

The new legislation gives schools a maximum of 21 days to offer in-person instruction after Cooper signs the bill into law, though schools could do  immediately if chosen. Under that 21-day timeline, Chatham County Schools would likely need to open for Plan A in-person instruction for K-5 students two to three weeks sooner than the board’s current plan calls for.

The N&O first reported the agreement between Democratic Gov. Cooper and leaders of the Republican-led state legislature, which would reopen N.C. K-12 schools to full-time daily instruction, Wednesday morning. Cooper and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger made the announcement at an  in-person news conference earlier that morning. The deal allows all school districts to offer daily in-person instruction to their K-12 students under Plan A — which, up until now, was only allowed for elementary schools.

“We have reached what we think is a fair compromise that will move many students to full-time instruction,” said Berger at the press conference, attended by the N&O.

Though the bill requires in-person instruction under Plan A, legislative staff has said elementary schools could still have a cleaning day, meaning only four days a week of in-person classes would be permitted. That means CCS can maintain its mid-week planning day, offering in-person instruction four times a week for Pre-K through 5th grade students.

While the moving up of the timeline for implementing Plan A would be required by the state if the legislation becomes law, its unclear whether the board would consider moving grades 6-12 to daily in-person learning under Plan A. At the time of its vote on Monday, doing so was not an option.

In Chatham County Schools, elementary students began returning for in-person hybrid learning under Plan B on Oct. 19, with middle school students returning Dec. 7 and high schoolers on Feb. 1. Under that plan, students who opt for in-person learning, rather than the district’s virtual academy option, attend school twice a week.

CCS administration proposed a plan to the board at its Feb. 23 meeting that would move PreK-3rd grade students back to Plan A on March 22, and 4th-5th on March 29. At Monday’s meeting, administration expressed concerns with having enough time to buy furniture “conducive to distancing pieces” under Plan A.  Previously, the administration said it could only guarantee four feet of physical distancing at its schools under Plan A, though many classrooms would allow for six. That new furniture  — which would allow schools to maximize physical distancing — wouldn’t arrive for three weeks after ordering, the district said.

Under the new state legislation’s timeline, the originally proposed March dates would both meet the 21-day deadline to reopen, if the bill passes Wednesday. 

That bill would require schools operating under Plan A to partner with the ABC Science Collaborative to share anonymous data, the draft of the bill says. CCS has already been in partnership with that group, which previously told the board that reopening under Plan and providing three feet of distancing would be safe.

The announcement of the agreement follows months of disagreement about reopening schools — often falling on partisan lines — as well as Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37, which would’ve required schools to offer in-person instruction. At the time, Cooper vetoed that bill to ensure DHHS guidance was followed, as well as to offer flexibility to local districts to remain or move to remote if needed. Under the new bill, Cooper would have authority to move a school district back to remote learning if necessary.

Under Senate Bill 37, public charter schools were not required to reopen. Under the current draft of the new legislation, that is still the case — meaning Chatham's Woods Charter School wouldn't be required to move up its timeline for implementing Plan B, or be required to offer Plan A to its elementary students.

Cooper first closed schools due to COVID-19 on March 14, 2020 — just shy of a year ago today. While most school districts offer some form of in-person instruction at this point, many districts — like CCS — have up to now offered a mix of hybrid and fully in-person instruction, while others have only offered fully remote and hybrid options.

This story was updated March 11 to reflect the House's passing of the bill.

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