Diane Peltz – Contributing writer
The School Board met on Monday for its regular meeting. On the agenda was a discussion on graduation issues and the ongoing ramification of school closures. Members of the board gave input into how to hold a graduation ceremony during this state of emergency, once again navigating unfamiliar waters to find a solution to an issue that has never occurred before.
Macon County School Board Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin explained the situation regarding graduation ceremonies and time constraints contingent on many factors. He spoke about the May 8 date, which Governor Roy Cooper has established could be Phase 1 in the reopening of the state. That is dependent on whether the state meets certain benchmarks set by the governor. If phase 1 was to last two weeks, then during Phase 2, which would begin on May 22, the number of people allowed to gather would be increased. That could allow for graduates and families to be able to gather together up to 50 people for a ceremony. If Phase 1 lasts up to four weeks, then phase 2 would begin in early June.
Several scenarios were discussed regarding ways in which to hold graduation commencement ceremonies. Several districts in North Carolina have proposed holding a virtual graduation ceremony. If students want to wait until Phase 2 or 3 is implemented, possibly pushing graduation ceremonies into July, then some 200 students and 600 parents might be allowed to gather together, possibly on the Franklin High School (FHS) football field, sometime in late June or early July. That would also depend on the weather and if the governor would allow that number of folks to gather. If the governor allows gatherings of 50 or less during Phase 2, then Highlands and Nantahala could hold their graduations ceremonies at that time.
“If we get a relapse [of Covid-19] during Phase 2 or 3, that would mess us all up again. That’s what scares me a little bit,” said school board member Tommy Cabe.
Chairman Jim Breedlove spoke about whether or not it is wise to wait until June or July to hold graduation ceremonies. He explained that they were caught between a rock and a hard place because they don’t know what the governor is going to say about mass gatherings. If they hold graduation now and have a relapse or uptick later, they won’t have to worry about the governor saying, well you are past the date and now you can’t have it at all.
“That is a very real possibility,” he said.
Dr. Baldwin said that they were at the mercy of the governor, the Macon County Health Department and the EMS director in order to determine how many folks can gather together in one place at one time.
School Board member Stephanie McCall expressed concern about not having traditional graduation ceremonies, including her own daughter’s. “These kids need this.” McCall tearfully read a letter that her daughter, Kedra McCall, wrote. The letter said she wanted to have a traditional ceremony, but if that was not possible, she writes, “then we can resort to virtual. But for now we should at least try to do traditional. If it gets worse and it comes that time, then we go virtual. But me, and all my friends want and deserve a traditional graduation. We’ve gone to school for 13 years looking forward to walking across the stage in front of all of our friends and family since we were tiny. It’s an exciting time and something that’s memorable. I want to wear my cap and gown and throw my cap in the air with all of my best friends. If anything, my parents deserve to be there – especially in our community. Our parents put everything into us, their own kids and other kids in our community.” Kedra attends Highlands School and is one of 30 seniors graduating this year.
Effects on students due to school closures
Schools have been closed to students since March 15 and will not reopen again this school year. They have however, been open to virtual learning. During this time students have not been given any new work to learn, only work to reinforce and retain what they have already learned. Some of the issues with virtual learning is internet access or lack of it. Only 74% of students have internet access and of those, 48% say it is good enough to do their work.
“We have been asked to do something our education system isn’t meant to do,” said Breedlove.
Some teachers re going above and beyond including Meagan Rogers, 2nd grade teacher at South Macon Elementary School. Rogers has been placing tiny trinkets and notes into her students’ weekly packets. She has also visited her students, all while social distancing, waving signs that says she misses them and her students wave back, happy to see their teacher once again.
In terms of going back to school in the fall it is estimated that students will have only 70 percent of language arts skills and only 50 percent of math skills needed to enter the next grade. Some students may actually be a full year behind. Much of the fall school year will begin with catching up to grade level expectancy. The question is whether to start school on time or start earlier, depending on the COVID-19 issue during the summer.
Dr. Baldwin explained that there are several scenarios being floated around by officials regarding opening up school in the fall. It is possible that if social distancing guidelines are still in place, that students might have to start with special scheduling. There might be an A day and a B day where only half of the students attend school on each of those days, in order to reduce the number of students, to be able to accommodate social distancing guidelines. There could also still be some days of remote learning. Schools will also have to be prepared for intermittent closures due to flu or COVID-19 upticks.
As for high school seniors entering college who will also be behind in their studies, colleges will have to come up with a plan to make up for those learning losses. Many seniors are thinking of taking a gap year before attending college this fall. Some colleges might continue to offer remote learning well into the fall or even the spring.
Dr. Baldwin also expressed concern that fall sports may not happen.
“We may not be able to have any athletics,” said Baldwin.
Nothing about this is normal and there is no roadmap to follow. This will all play out over the next several months with the outcome up in the air for now.