Two weeks of Plan A bring relief for many students and teachers

Posted 5/5/21

Last semester, Jordan-Matthews High School ESL teacher Wendi Pillars struggled to engage her students over Zoom — those who showed up, that is.

Some students on her roster didn’t attend due to …

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Two weeks of Plan A bring relief for many students and teachers

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Last semester, Jordan-Matthews High School ESL teacher Wendi Pillars struggled to engage her students over Zoom — those who showed up, that is.

Some students on her roster didn’t attend due to full-time work, moving or exhaustion and lack of motivation.

The students who did show up didn’t often speak up.

So when Chatham County Schools middle and high schoolers moved to four days of in-person learning under Plan A on April 19, Pillars was relieved.

“We were extremely happy to be back and be able to see them in person,” said Pillars, who also teaches earth science. “It was like a breath of oxygen to see them face to face.”

CCS high schoolers learned completely remotely from last spring to Feb. 1, when hybrid in-person learning began. Under that plan, students could attend in person twice a week. Pillars told the News + Record in December that many students were no longer motivated to complete their work, with many procrastinating on short assignments and not seeking to improve.

Academic declines were prevalent for many students, with nearly 22% of Chatham County Schools students receiving a grade of D or F in a class during the first two grading periods of last semester — a 73.96% increase from last year’s 12.56% districtwide failure/at-risk rate, according to data released by the district’s central office.

That rate was even higher for high schoolers during the second grading period, with more than 38% of high school students receiving a D or F. Like many teachers, Pillars wrestled with a desire to better teach students and protect teachers at risk for COVID-19 complications.

“I deeply, deeply believe that our students at the high school level would be far more successful than they are right now if we were back in person,” she said in December. “We know that there’s a lot of unknowns, but we’re here … We’re here for the long haul and hoping for the best. We’ll keep trying. We’re stubborn.”

Since then, things have improved, Pillars said, with students generally engaging more at school, though she still hasn't seen some students. Her son, Ian McMillan, is a 9th grader at Jordan-Matthews and she said having a schedule again has been “the biggest thing.”

“It’s been great just to have sequences of days in a row with them,” Pillars said.

'Before it was a lot more stressful'

Ian Henry, an 8th grader at Moncure School, said while he likes Plan A, he wishes school would go back to in-person learning five days a week. The asynchronous learning day on Wednesday is “just kind of a lazy day,” he said; he feels he’d be more motivated to do work without having to stay home in the middle of every week.

Henry’s favorite part of in-person learning is socializing with friends again; only a few of his classmates are still enrolled in Virtual Academy, so now he sees most of them four days a week. Moncure is a K-8 school and was able to maintain six feet of social distance by getting creative with learning spaces — Henry’s class primarily meets in the cafeteria.

“I am glad that we’re back to Plan A because I feel like during virtual learning, I wasn’t able to be at my full potential,” he said. “It’s much, much easier because a teacher is always in front of us and we’re not on Zoom.”

His brothers, Colin Henry, a junior at Northwood, and Dalton Henry, a sophomore there, agree. Dalton said the classroom is much more interactive with fuller classes under Plan A and Colin said being in person makes it much easier to get help from teachers.

“It feels like normal except for the fact that obviously we have to wear masks and have social distance,” Colin said. “You won’t fall off the edge and be left behind this time like before — before it was a lot more stressful.”

Their mom, Katie Henry, was a vocal proponent of moving to Plan A over the last few months, calling on the CCS board of education to implement in-person learning for all students five days a week. Along with other parents, she stressed that the school board should listen to guidance suggesting six feet of distance was not required to open schools and that in-person learning could be done safely.

On March 25, the board voted for 6th-12th graders to return under Plan A on April 19, following state legislation requiring public school districts to offer Plan A for elementary students and allowing them to offer it to older students. Previously, middle and high schools could not operate under Plan A due to the six-foot distancing requirement.

“I was so excited for it to be my first week without my kids, basically, and I work from home normally … I was like, oh, we’re gonna celebrate, it’s gonna be so awesome,” she said of that first week of in-person learning. “I was like, no, it was just a normal day, it didn’t feel different. Because that’s how life is supposed to go — you get up, kids go to school, you go to work, and that’s what it is. So it was really a routine day.”

'We are glad that we're with the kids'

Instead of attending school under Plan A, J-M senior Tiana Brooks opted to shift to the district’s Virtual Academy, which she felt was her safest option. Though case counts were lower, she still felt the hybrid schedule and distancing were an important part of staying safe.

“My thoughts on Plan A (are) I felt as a student it was too soon since COVID is still high in numbers,” she said. “All I want is for everyone to be in a safe environment in order to work, and I think Plan B was the safest option for both teachers and students.”

Some high school teachers have previously told the News + Record they were concerned about not yet being vaccinated before moving to in-person learning, along with the parts of the school day that could violate CDC guidelines, such as eating indoors with others or trying to keep students distanced in crowded hallways.

While district personnel reports don’t yet indicate a higher rate of teacher retirements or resignations than in years prior, teachers have quit or retired early due to COVID-19 concerns. Many others returned to in-person learning with concerns for their safety, and others have said they’ve experienced burnout from increased workloads and stress associated with teaching during a pandemic.

At this point, Pillars said most teachers who want to be vaccinated have been able to, creating for many a “sense of relief.” Still, some are leery knowing social distance is difficult to maintain in hallways and during meals, particularly when only older students are able to get vaccinated — though Pfizer announced Tuesday that the FDA is expected to soon authorize the vaccine for 12-15 year olds.

“We’re trying to help each other when we can,” she said of teacher collaboration. “There’s a lot of frustration, but we are glad that we’re with the kids. That definitely makes a difference.”

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

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