Chatham County Schools began its third year impacted by COVID-19 on Monday — encapsulating the tension between moving past the pandemic while attempting to mitigate its health threats.
Students and teachers still wore masks, but unlike in prior school years, they started school with the expectation of attending in-person every day. The school system’s board of education unanimously voted on Aug. 5 to require universal indoor masking on all of its campuses, regardless of vaccination status, in response to the spread of the Delta variant and guidance from school officials.
Following the decision, some parents and community members complained. Likely anticipating push back, Superintendent Anthony Jackson said at that meeting that masking was a vital element to keeping students in schools this year.
“We can’t give them normal, but our goal is to give them at least a routine,” he said. “Just by masking we can go to some level of normalization … or at least a routine that’s predictable.”
This year, the first day of school signified the opening of Seaforth High School — the first high school built in Chatham since 1972 — for 9th and 10th grade students.
Monday also marked the first day of school for hundreds of kindergarteners — a milestone Jackson has commemorated since his first year as a superintendent in 2009 by accompanying a kindergarten student to class on their first day. Though he usually would ride the bus with that student to school, due to COVID-19 protocols, this year he greeted North Chatham Elementary student Jaedynn Evans at school.
More than 8,400 students returned for in-person learning on Monday, the district said, joining the 98 students from Chatham School of Science & Engineering Early College who started in early August. In addition, 210 students started school remotely through the district’s virtual academies. At the board’s Aug. 5 meeting, the district extended the enrollment deadline for its K-12 virtual academies through Aug. 8; about 60 more students enrolled during that time, based on previous numbers from the district.
Last year, the district’s virtual academy served around 25% of the district at any time, with around 75% of students opting to attend in-person and hybrid school when it was offered. This year, virtual-only students make up less than 3% of the student population. Still, the district felt it was important to offer such an option, even though it wasn’t required by the state this year.
“As we think about services post-pandemic, we have to think about the opportunities we provide for students and families,” Amanda Moran, the district’s assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support, previously told the News + Record. “We want our students and families to have as many options as possible.”
Northwood High School English Teacher Eliza Brinkley said the first day was a success, though the return to a fast-paced day this year will take some getting used to, “since things just generally moved more slowly for the past year and a half, even when we got back to in person last spring.”
“It felt great to be back in person and on a typical schedule,” Brinkley said. “I also am feeling safe since our administrators have been very clear that mask wearing is a must for everyone.”
At the time of the district’s Aug. 5 meeting, at least 48 school districts had defied state masking guidance, opting instead to make masking optional in schools. Since then, more than 20 districts have reversed course in response to clusters in school or further evidence of the delta variant; 27 of N.C.’s 115 total districts had said they will allow masks to be optional as of Tuesday afternoon. All of those districts are in areas that voted for former president Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, The News & Observer reported.
While masking and social distancing protocols will continue at CCS this year, other protocols have changed. For example, under new state guidance, schools no longer need to do symptom screenings for students and staff at the beginning of a school day. Disinfecting and cleaning processes — formed in conjunction with Chatham County Public Health Department and the district’s supplier of custodial supplies — include daily cleaning of touch surfaces, cleaning of buses after morning and afternoon routes and frequent cleaning of main offices, reception areas and restrooms in schools.
The quarantine guidelines are also different this year, under state guidelines. If a student tests positive for COVID-19 but was masked, schools will not have to enforce a two-week quarantine period for students potentially exposed to that student — so long as those students were also masked.
The district will post weekly case reports, including any clusters, on its website by the end of the business day every Friday. Last year, the district reported minimal clusters, suggesting that cases present in school buildings were the result of community spread and not school spread. Health experts have long cited masking as an important mitigation strategy in preventing such school spread.
CCS’s reports will be posted at https://www.chatham.k12.nc.us/Page/23355.
In an introductory message to parents at the beginning of a back-to-school parent toolkit for the district, Jackson said this was a big reason the school system would continue to require masking, likely until vaccines are available for school-aged students. The toolkit document is available on the district’s website.
The Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Chatham County Public Health Dept. and ABC Science Collaborative all recommended universal masking in schools.
“The beginning of a school year provides us the opportunity to start again,” Jackson said in his introductory message. “The last two school years have been disruptive for our students. Our goal is to give our students the best school year ever, despite the pandemic.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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