No Plan A for Chatham County Schools’ K-5 students — for now

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/23/21

PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 against phasing in Plan A for EC and K-5 students during a specially called meeting Tuesday night.

Board members Jane …

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No Plan A for Chatham County Schools’ K-5 students — for now

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PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 against phasing in Plan A for EC and K-5 students during a specially called meeting Tuesday night.

Board members Jane Allen Wilson, Del Turner and Melissa Hlavac dissented, with David Hamm and Gary Leonard voting in favor of the motion.

Proposed by district administration and presented to the board Tuesday, the potential plan suggested bringing Pre-K through 3rd grade back under Plan A March 22, and 4th-5th graders on March 29. The plan also proposed bringing EC and 504 students back under Plan A within the 15-calendar-window required by Senate Bill 37.

That bill was passed by the General Assembly last week and would require school systems to offer Plan A to special needs students and Plan A or Plan B to all other students, if signed by Gov. Roy Cooper (or not vetoed after 10 days).

“I’m hesitant to go to Plan A at this time,” Wilson said, “but it seems like we’re close. And if we get there, I think the administration has done a lot to make sure we’re ready.”

She added she felt it made sense to honor the preference of teachers to remain in Plan B, given that they haven’t had the same level of choice as families have up to this point — citing February survey data presented by the district Tuesday which showed many teachers stated a preference for remaining in Plan B. That survey collected responses from 773 of the systems approximately 1,300 staff members.

Tuesday’s meeting was called at the board’s regular Feb. 8 meeting, following Gov. Roy Cooper “strongly urging” in-person instruction — recommending Plan A for elementary schools and Plan B for middle and high schools. According to state health guidance, the difference between the two plans is the requirement of six feet of social distancing under Plan B.

At the board’s Feb. 8 meeting, several members expressed concern with six feet of social distancing not being mandated under Plan A. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board grappled with what its members characterized as conflicting messaging from official health sources and their guidance on the importance of distancing.

Prior to the board’s discussion on Plan A, Mike Smith with the ABC Science Collaborative and Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek gave brief updates — sharing slightly conflicting messages regarding social distancing. While six feet of social distance is ideal, Smith said it’s not required to provide in-person instruction safely.

“There’s really no reason to think Plan A is less safe than Plan B,” he said, adding that the ABC Science Collaborative’s data from districts following Plan A did not show higher rates of transmission than among schools following Plan B.

Smith cited the Center for Disease and Prevention Control’s Feb. 12 guidance as support for not mandating six feet distancing. That CDC guidance says schools offering in-person learning should prioritize two mitigation strategies: universal masking and “physical distancing (at least six feet) … maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

“Dr. Smith and I may echo a different message here, but that’s fine,” Zelek began his presentation, adding that he was concerned about schools moving forward with a plan that doesn’t require six feet of distancing. “The messaging has been pretty consistent,” he said, in stating that “physical distancing is a pretty key component” in schools and beyond.

The district’s presentation regarding Plan A considerations said that “it will be possible to maintain a minimum of 4 feet of social distancing in all K-5 classrooms,” though many classrooms could maintain six feet. Presenting findings on transportation requirements and teacher workloads, the district said it felt prepared to open safely under Plan A.

CCS also reached out to district principals, who conveyed concerns with physical spacing, contact tracing challenges, transitions between Virtual Academy and face-to-face instruction and increased staff stress under Plan A. Assistant Supt. of Academic Services & Instructional Support Amanda Hartness said while workloads would often decrease for teachers under Plan A, the plan would still require more planning than normal.

Hartness advised the board to continue to keep the mid-week planning day in place for teachers under either plan, citing survey results which showed 92% of respondents said they’d prefer a 4-day in-person week with an at-home planning day under Plan A. Just 8% said they’d prefer a 5-day in-person week.

“I think right now the biggest way we can support our teachers is to continue to have that day for planning,” Hartness told the board.

In a response to a survey question about what to “include or take away to improve (CCS) COVID-19 safety protocols,” staff said they wanted to maintain six feet of distance, increase protocol enforcement and requested better hand sanitizer and more masks, gloves and face shields.

Following a brief period of questions and discussion, Chairperson Gary Leonard made a motion to accept the district’s plan as presented; Hamm seconded the motion.

After Turner and Wilson expressed discomfort in moving to Plan A at this point, Hlavac agreed, adding that she wouldn’t feel comfortable making decisions about a plan she would feel uncomfortable making for her own children.

“I don’t want us to get too ahead of ourselves,” she said.

After the motion failed 3-2, Leonard called for a motion to adjourn. There was no discussion on when another meeting about Plan A will take place, but the board’s next regular meeting is March 8.

Here’s a look at some of the state and national school COVID-19 guidance released leading up to the Feb. 23 meeting:

Gov. Cooper’s guidance and state reopening bill

On Feb. 2, Cooper “strongly urged” North Carolina public school districts to offer in-person instruction at a press conference, stopping short of mandating schools to reopen.

Last week, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 37, a bill also introduced in early February which requires school systems to offer Plan A to special needs students and Plan A or Plan B to all other students. Gov. Cooper said last Thursday that he wanted to discuss the bill further before acting on it — namely by including state-recommended social distancing requirements at middle and high schools and allowing local districts to respond to emergencies to return to Plan C if needed.

The governor has 10 days to sign or veto the bill; it will become law without his signature if he does nothing by then. By the time of publication Tuesday, Cooper hadn’t acted on the bill yet.

Teacher vaccines

The Chatham County Public Health Department announced last Friday that school and childcare workers over the age of 50 could begin receiving the vaccine in Chatham on Feb. 26. (For more about that plan, see this week’s story about teacher reactions to vaccine eligibility.)

This decision followed Cooper’s Feb. 10 announcement that the state would expand vaccine eligibility to Group 3, starting with educators and school personnel on Feb. 24, with other frontline workers set to become eligible March 10.

At the time, both state and local leaders stressed that vaccine eligibility did not guarantee vaccination doses given.

CCPHD Director Mike Zelek told the News + Record at the time that the department would continue to focus its vaccination efforts on individuals in Groups 1 and 2 who have not yet been vaccinated.

“Thousands of Chatham residents in these groups remain unvaccinated, and we are exhausting our weekly vaccine allocations to work through these groups as quickly as possible,” Zelek said. “Vaccine supply continues to be the limiting factor, and it is unlikely that we will be able to move to Group 3 as soon as the group becomes eligible per this updated guidance from NCDHHS.”

In the announcement made Friday, the department said it will continue to use the majority of its allocation to vaccinate individuals in Groups 1 and 2, but will begin scheduling appointments in the CCPHD vaccine database who work in the county’s public, public charter and private schools and childcare centers. That database already has nearly 1,000 individuals from these facilities, the release said, with around 40% of those people 50 years or older.

New CDC guidance

On Feb. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again urged K-12 schools to offer in-person instruction as quickly as possible, offering a step-by-step plan including five mitigation strategies to do so.

In that guidance, the agency said elementary school students could receive at least some in-person instruction safely, even in communities with high transmission spread. However, the same guidance said middle and high school students might need to switch to hybrid or remote learning in communities experiencing intense outbreaks.

Under the agency’s new criteria regarding community spread, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told media that schools in more than 90 percent of U.S. counties could not return to in-person classrooms full-time. That includes counties in North Carolina, where the state legislature is currently pushing for all students to return to in-person instruction.

The five mitigation strategies listed in the guidance included the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. The agency said vaccines and testing were “additional layers” of COVID-19 protection.

“I want to be clear, with this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen,” Walensky said in the Feb. 12 news briefing. “These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

Comments

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Ron Snyder

Get the students back in the schools, now. Fire all teachers or staff that refuse to go back to teaching in-person.

Sunday, February 28

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