Gov. Roy Cooper expected to release 2020-21 reopening guidance this week
The date is certain. On Aug. 17, North Carolina public schools will begin the 2020-21 school year.
But much else about the start of school remains unsettled as districts consider an array of options for safely teaching 1.4 million K-12 students during a pandemic that may linger into the fall.
Earlier this month, state health and education officials released reopening guidelines which mandated school districts develop three plans, varied in degrees of restrictiveness. Plan A calls for all students to attend school at the same time. Plan B limits schools to 50% of their maximum capacity, as students may alternate attending schools for portions of the day, week, or month. Plan C is exclusively remote learning, a system many families have grown accustomed to since mid-March when COVID-19 forced school buildings to close.
By the end of Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce which plan his office recommends. The guidelines will be a baseline; any of North Carolina’s 115 school districts may choose a more restrictive plan though none may chose a more lenient option. If Cooper decides on Plan A, districts can elect Plan B or Plan C and limit in-person instruction, partially or entirely. But if the state picks Plan C, every public school may only teach remotely.
"No matter what we decide, some will not be happy," said Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Marvin Connelly during a conversation last week with district leaders. "And we realize that. But please know that our No. 1 priority is students and staff safety."
Most districts are awaiting Cooper’s decision before sharing reopening specifics. But a few have revealed details on their potential reopenings, particularly for Plan B, which possesses the most variables around blending in-person and remote instruction.
For its Plan B, Asheville City Schools would have half of all pre-K through sixth graders meet in-person one week while the other half access live virtual lessons remotely. Every week, the two groups would switch. Older Asheville students would learn virtually all the time, following live lessons during the day or watching lesson recordings outside of school hours.
"I like having some continuity for five days," said Emily Harrison, whose two sons attend Asheville City elementary schools. "I don't know that I'd be willing to jump to in-person next week. Come August or September, things may look a little different."
Harrison also sees an imperative for younger students to experience physical classrooms, even if its only part of the month.
"We're still dealing with emotional immaturity in younger children," she said. "I think by getting to know them in-person you're going to bridge and build a relationship a lot faster than trying to do anything on the computer."
When detailing reopening options, districts weigh factors like geographic size, internet access, the percentage of students who rely on schools for meals, and parental preferences captured in surveys.
"Internet access is huge," said Kevin Smith, the schools-community relations coordinator at Transylvania County Schools, which sent out a reopening survey to parents. "Twenty to 25% of our families are still struggling to get reliable internet, not on their telephone. Even with the hot spots to try and overcome that, a lot of those families are in the hollers and in the valleys and up on mountains and around the corners. They're not going to get cell service at all, period."
Bus and health plans
If physical lessons resume this fall, in any capacity, the school day would operate under heightened safety protocols. Even under relaxed Plan A, state health officials will require both staff and middle and high school students to wear face coverings when within 6 feet of another. In lunch and bathroom lines, visuals would delineate 6 feet of spacing. At dismissal, students will head directly to their transportation. Hand sanitizer is to be stationed at all school entrances, and teachers are to incorporate handwashing breaks into lessons. Surfaces are to be routinely disinfected.
"There seems to be a uniform recognition that things won't be the same in the fall," said Mary Ann Wolf, president of Public School Forum of North Carolina.
Anyone who comes in direct contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 is to stay away from school buildings for two weeks.
Guidelines also call for symptom screenings and temperature checks of every person entering a school building or bus.
Transportation presents another hurdle for districts, especially under Plan B, which orders school buses be kept at half their maximum capacity to ensure students can socially distance. While Plan B also limits the number of students arriving to school, the restrictions could strain districts’ transportation.
"Right now, we don’t have enough buses nor enough drivers to divide all the children up with only 50% on the bus," said Cumberland County’s Connelly. "That’s the biggest challenge that we see right now."
North Carolina teaches more rural students than any other state but Texas, with more than a third of the state’s school-aged children living in areas defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as rural.
"Transylvania County is so far-flung," Smith said. "Our bus routes are already as long as kids can handle. If we were to go to a double bus route, you can't spend three hours on the bus or be waiting around all day."
Reporter Brian Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.