Chatham County Schools

Special BOE meeting discusses remote learning, hears COVID-19 updates

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/18/20

At a specially called meeting Thursday, the Chatham County Board of Education heard COVID-19 updates from district and state partners, ultimately deciding to host a second special meeting next …

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Chatham County Schools

Special BOE meeting discusses remote learning, hears COVID-19 updates

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At a specially called meeting Thursday, the Chatham County Board of Education heard COVID-19 updates from district and state partners, ultimately deciding to host a second special meeting next Wednesday to make any decisions regarding the district’s current remote learning plan.

That meeting, to begin at 5:30, will take place in person and also be live-streamed.

The board’s meeting, which began Thursday afternoon and lasted into the evening, got under way less than an hour after Gov. Roy Cooper announced children in K-5 public schools could return to full capacity in-person learning — known as Plan A under state school guidelines — on Oct. 5. In his announcement, Cooper said students in middle and high schools must still operate under the hybrid or remote learning models. The board did not explicitly discuss Cooper’s announcement nor any CCS elementary schools operating under Plan A, but did discuss possibilities for returning to school under Plan B after the nine weeks of remote learning end on Oct. 16.

“I just wanted to take just a moment to do a shout out to our staff, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, TA’s, our administration, just for the phenomenal job they’re doing in difficult conditions,” board chairperson Gary Leonard said to start the meeting. “We want to thank our students for being willing to try new things and our parents to work hard to help them learn and to be patient with us. We will continue to work hard... We just appreciate your time and listen up, and hopefully we will all continue to move forward in this.”

The board heard updates on statewide trends from the ABC Science Collaborative, a project which analyzes COVID-related data in partnership with Duke, UNC and surrounding school districts, including CCS, and from Chatham’s Public Health Department. The district also presented employee survey results, cleaning protocols and the draft for a “return-to-school” employee guidebook. The board unanimously approved revisions to employee leave, temporarily granting the superintendent authority to make discretionary leave of absence without pay approval decisions.

‘There will be infections’

ABC Science Collaborative presenter Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, stressed a few of the group’s key findings studying school re-openings in North Carolina: the importance of social distancing, wearing masks at all points of exposure, and limiting the capacity of indoor school locations through hybrid models. Benjamin stressed that a detailed plan for preventing spread in all school-wide interactions would be crucial to successfully reopening.

“If schools open in Chatham County there will be infections in children in the community and there will be infections for teachers and other staff,” Benjamin said. “And if schools stay closed in Chatham County, there will be infections in children in the community and there will be infections for teachers and other staff. The key question for the board is, ‘Will there be more infections as a result of going to school?’ Do you have a plan that will help prevent that spread? And then balancing that with the benefit of having schools open up.”

Board member Jane Allen Wilson asked whether the group had found any strategies that successfully mitigated exposure during school meal times. Benjamin said limiting meals to 15 minutes — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s time measurement to quantify “exposure” — was important, as was wearing masks before and after eating, as well as eating in socially-distanced spaces.

Board member David Hamm then asked about any surges in the state from schools that had opened under Plan B, saying it was “pretty compelling” that those schools had met in person for five or six weeks without significant outbreaks. Benjamin said he thought Hamm was right about the lack of surges in N.C. K-12 schools operating under Plan B, but added that wasn’t the case in other states where schools didn’t require a hybrid schedule or mask-wearing.

After board member Del Turner asked about the feelings of teachers in the state regarding a return to school, Benjamin stressed the importance of school leadership adhering to its plan and then leading by example to ensure the plan is actually followed.

Mike Zelek, the Interim Director of Chatham’s Public Health Department, echoed this guidance during his presentation on county-wide trends, emphasizing that mitigation strategies once there are positive cases will be crucial to schools remaining open safely.

Following Zelek’s presentation, Executive Director for Digital Teaching and Learning Emma Braaten shared employee survey data. The survey, which had about an 80% completion rate, included CCS faculty and staff, with teachers making up 64% of respondents. In response to the question, “Do you feel comfortable beginning in-person instruction with students?” nearly 30% said “yes,” 41% said “no” and another 30% answered “unsure.”

“I think that in the unsure column,” Superintendent Derrick Jordan said of the data, “there are certainly some folks who if they were forced to choose yes or no would say ‘no.’ And there are some folks who if forced to choose would say ‘yes,’ and then there are some who would need some additional information before they were able to make an informed decision.”

‘We need to move swiftly’

The board also heard updates from Chris Blice, the district’s Superintendent for Operations, regarding the district’s cleaning and disinfecting protocols, which had an estimated cost of $276,610 — with some items to be reimbursed and others to be recurring costs once schools do reopen. The district’s cleaning plan has a few key elements: the daily plan for when students are in the building, school bus plan, classroom plan and evening plan, to prepare campuses for the return of students and staff the next day.

“Thank you for being so thorough about this,” Wilson said in response. “This is really good to hear and I like a lot of the things that you have considered ­— it sounds possible and doable and reassuring.”

Following updates on remote learning and the presentation of the drafted employee guidebook for a safe return, board member David Hamm asked what lead time the district would need in order to feel prepared to move to the hybrid model. Jordan said the district put together a planning team to plan for Plan B as soon as the expiration of the nine weeks of remote learning.

“Our task that we put before our planning team is to work to provide the necessary components of a workable plan,” Jordan said. “Again, there are a lot of unknowns — you’ve heard some of them talked about today. But in terms of how much more time we will need, I’m not sure that I’m prepared to say that I have a definitive answer to that. I think that my response simply is that you gave us a timeline and a set of expectations and we are working toward that timeline and those expectations.”

After the board unanimously passed revisions to the county’s leave policy, board member Melissa Hlavac suggested that the board meet the following week to “make a decision on this as soon as possible.”

Following brief discussion, the board called a special meeting to consider actions related to COVID-19 for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The meeting will take place in the Horton Middle School Multipurpose room — with face coverings, social distancing and symptom screenings required — and it will also be live-streamed. The agenda for that meeting is not yet available online.

“We’ve gotten a lot of new information today,” Hlavac said. “I also recognize that we need to move swiftly because teachers certainly want an answer but certainly the families and students want to know what it looks like moving forward so that they too can plan ahead.”

You can find documents and presentations from the board’s Sept. 17 meeting on the district’s website. 

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

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