What Chatham County Schools must do to re-open after (or during) COVID-19

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/19/20

With the 2019-2020 school year wrapping up at the end of last week for students across Chatham County, educators and policy makers have already begun looking toward the 2020-2021 school year and how …

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What Chatham County Schools must do to re-open after (or during) COVID-19

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With the 2019-2020 school year wrapping up at the end of last week for students across Chatham County, educators and policy makers have already begun looking toward the 2020-2021 school year and how students might return to buildings after time away during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First of all, there’s no guarantee that school buildings will be open on August 17, when the next school year is set to kick off for North Carolina’s public schools. Last week, state leaders released a plan, titled “StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Tookit,” to provide K-12 schools sanitation and social distancing guidelines in case buildings reopen. The document also provided a July 1 timeline for a decision on a determination from the Governor’s Office, the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the N.C. State Board of Education and the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction on “how schools can reopen safely,” with the caveat that “future decisions” could “increase or ease restrictions” depending on COVID-19 metrics.

Keeping things clean

The Toolkit described three possible scenarios within which schools would resume operations. Plan A would incorporate “minimal social distancing,” Plan B would utilize “moderate social distancing” and Plan C would be “remote learning only.” DHHS says districts must plan for reopening under all three scenarios “depending on what restrictions are necessary when school opens, or at any time in the school year, to control the spread of the disease.”

When first presenting the plan at a news conference on June 8, state officials stressed the need to return to classes while maintaining cleanliness throughout buildings.

“We are working together to balance the need for all of our children to get back to school — especially children who rely on public schools for their education, health, safety and nutrition — while at the same time proceeding cautiously and deliberately to protect their health and safety,” said Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education. “I know meeting these public health requirements will take a tremendous effort by our schools — but I also know we are doing the right thing and that our schools will rise to the challenge.”

The highlights of the Toolkit include social distancing requirements, cleaning and hygiene guidelines and when to let a student who is showing symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19 to return to school. There are also recommendations that are not mandatory.

All schools will be required to place markings in reception areas, bathrooms, locker rooms and lines to show six feet apart, as well as limit nonessential visitors and “ensure students go straight from a vehicle to their classrooms” when they arrive or depart from school. NCDHHS recommends districts have meals delivered to classrooms or students pick them up from cafeterias and bring them back to their classrooms to limit mass gatherings.

Cloth face coverings for all students and staff are “strongly recommended but required,” while hand sanitizer must be placed at every building entrance and exit, cafeteria and classroom. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Toolkit says, does not recommend universal testing at this time “to be used to inform admitting students or staff into school.”

Other recommendations speak to specific parts of health inside and outside the school building. Buses, for example, are recommended to be configured to allow for social distancing within the vehicle — for example, “one rider per seat in every other row.” Additionally, schools are encouraged to “increase capacity to deliver social support services by increasing number of on-site social workers.”

The Toolkit did not outline any state funding for meeting these requirements or recommendations. House Bill 1043, which became law May 4, provided an additional $10 million for school districts for “additional physical and mental health support services for students in response to COVID-19,” but the funds were allocated for “contracted services provided no later than December 30, 2020.”

Chatham County Schools’ draft plan

Senate Bill 704, which passed alongside HB1043, required public school districts in North Carolina to develop “remote instruction” plans for the upcoming school year and submit it to the SBE by July 20. The Chatham County Board of Education heard about the first draft of the county’s plan at the June 8 meeting.

The draft document began to address some of the issues raised by DPI, including access to internet, continuing instruction and grading of assignments. It was not yet finished, with multiple sections referencing a need for more guidance from DPI before completion.

As part of the plan, Chatham County Schools surveyed parents, teachers, students and community stakeholders like nonprofits on several issues, including internet access and the effectiveness of remote learning during the last three months. Early results of the survey, which lasted until June 11, showed that 94 percent of teachers and 65 percent of students and parents said they “feel prepared or very prepared” to manage and/or participate in at-home learning in 2020-21. Additionally, more than 70 percent of total respondents said their experiences with technical help “were positive and satisfactory.”

For elementary, middle and K-8 schools, the draft states, teachers will be asked to provide a minimum of three “structured instructional lessons.” Middle school-aged students will “follow the school’s daily bell schedule,” meaning classes would be held at their normal times, but maybe not for the entire normal length. All lessons should be recorded and posted online for later use, and each teacher should have daily office hours “that can be used by individual students to ask questions and ‘check-in’ for support.”

High school students and teachers would also follow the daily bell schedule, and for every five days of at-home learning, each student with online access would participate in at a minimum one “whole-class ‘live’ meeting held during the established daily bell schedule time for the class period.”

Regarding grading and attendance, the district is still waiting on more guidance from the state, but as of now, teachers would be providing grades for individual assignments if a series of critical factors are met. The factors would be the same that DPI established for the last three months, including the stipulation that the educational material was “accessible by all students for which the learning is intended.” The school system conducted a survey in March, which represented three-fourths of the student body, and found that 10 percent had no access to reliable internet, while an additional 6 percent reported that they had “dial-up, cable-based or DSL” connection.

Subject to change

But as CCS officials reiterated many times Monday night, everything could change in an instant.

“This is not at all a finished product,” said Amanda Hartness, the district’s assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support. “It will need to continue to be a document that evolves. This document may change over time, even after submitted to the state.”

The cost for meeting all of these requirements and recommendations wasn’t clear to the district as of last week’s meeting. Hartness said the district had access to some funding sources that “may be utilized,” including money from the CARES Act, instructional supply and technology funding from state and local sources and even grants from local nonprofits.

But state law and the closeness of the August 17 date — the slated opening for school and 70 days from the school board’s meeting — necessitated the district to move quickly.

At the beginning of that meeting, multiple parents and community members shared thoughts on how Chatham County Schools should handle reopening, ranging from scheduling to hygiene practices. CCS Superintendent Derrick Jordan said he sympathized with their concerns, saying there were “still so many unknowns.”

“I share what I heard today in terms of frustration and/or just angst around the uncertainty of what we are being faced with,” Jordan said. “What we know is that we are going to have to rely on the experts to provide information, and now we have to have time to digest it, engage with folks, work with our local public health officials. But I do think there are going to be some big rocks that we may or may not be able to move as quickly as I or anybody else want to see them moved.”

CCS’ plan will come before the school board again in its final stages at the July 16 meeting, which is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., likely in virtual form. By then, the district will likely have direction from the state on whether or not buildings will be allowed to reopen and whether or not students will be there in-person, assuming the July 1 deadline is met.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.


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