Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer
When Governor Roy Cooper announced last week that North Carolina Schools will re-open with both in-person and online education on Aug. 17, school systems across the state set about formulating a plan of implementation. During a meeting of the Macon County School Board meeting on Monday, Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin discussed the issues surrounding ways to execute such a plan.
Plan “B” to be Implemented in all North Carolina schools
Plan “B” requires moderate social distancing which means that students who are in the classroom must be seated six feet apart. That means there would only be room for half the students in class on any given day. One of the scenarios discussed at the board meeting was having an “A” – “B” schedule, which necessitates that half the students will be in school on Monday (A day) and half on Tuesday (B day). Wednesday would be another “A” day and Thursday a “B” day. Fridays would be used to disinfect and sanitize schools. This plan is preferred by district administrators, as opposed to alternate weeks, in order for the students to have interaction with their teacher twice a week, rather than go a week without direct instruction.
Although this plan was proposed, it is not yet set in stone. A second survey was sent out to parents and teachers on Wednesday to get a better idea on which option they will be choosing this Fall. The survey was sent out via email by individual schools, and is also available at each child’s school. Parents need to fill out a survey for each child in the school system to best help principals plan for school this Fall. The survey will determine classroom capacity, transportation plans, and total enrollment. The surveys will be available for one week, with the final day to fill it out being July 29.
Highlands and Nantahala schools will be able to operate in person at full capacity, five days a week, as their enrollment is lower than Franklin area schools. Pre-K will also be able to operate at full capacity with 18 students, 5 days a week. Union Academy is developing a plan to operate four days per week for all students, with Fridays being used for sanitation. Macon Early College will have a plan specific for their unique makeup as it relates to students taking classes at Southwestern Community College. Franklin High School is working on several options to meet capacity concerns, one potential option is to have freshmen and juniors attend in person on Monday and Wednesdays and sophomores and seniors on Tuesday and Thursdays.
Remote instruction will be used for the days children are not in the classrooms. Teachers will be responsible for assigning work to be completed at home, which will be figured into the student’s grade.
What a Plan “B” Looks Like
Aside from social distancing, Plan “B” requires that both teachers and students in grades 5-12 wear face coverings when in common areas. While the students are social distancing or are at their desks, face masks can be removed. Students will be given regular reminders on the proper use of hygiene such as hand washing before meals. Temperature checks will be conducted at each school, either by going through a kiosk, which can check temperatures of 70 students per minute or with a hand held thermometer. If a child or adult registers a temperature of 100 or higher the child will be sent to a room for isolation and the adult will need to leave campus immediately, to self quarantine. A temperature of 100.4 will require the student to leave campus as soon as possible.
Breakfast and lunch will be served in the classrooms rather than the cafeteria to promote social distancing. Sharing of materials such as classroom books, glues, and crayons will be discouraged. Gel hand sanitizer will be available in each classroom, along with stations in the hallways. Each child will be issued at least five face masks, although they are free to wear their own.
IPads will be assigned to every child K-12 for use during the remote learning days when they are not in class. Parents who opt to have their children enroll in the virtual academy will also be provided an iPad. Assignments will be able to be downloaded in class on the days students are at the school for those families that do not have internet or cannot access the Wi-Fi hotspots in town. No parents or visitors will be allowed on campus, parents can speak to teachers or administrators via Google Classroom, text, email or by calling the school.
The school system has purchased 500 gallons of sanitizer, 2,000 face shields, along with two cases of gloves and 200 handheld thermometers. For younger grades, plexiglas will be installed around shared tables where desks cannot be utilized. Students will be required to wear face masks while riding the bus. There will be no temperature checks upon boarding the bus as that would prove to be too dangerous in areas such as Highlands Road or Georgia Road where traffic is heavy. Students will have their temperatures checked once they arrive on campus. Only one student will be allowed per seat unless they are family members.
During remote learning days students will access their lesson from their iPads. Lessons will be graded as completed and attendance will be taken daily. Feedback and grading will be essential parts of remote learning, which was one of the biggest concerns the school system experienced this Spring. The recommended time students should spend actively engaged in online learning parameters are as follows: K-2, one hour per day; grades 3-4, two hours daily; grades 5-6, three hours; grades 7-8, four hours. Teachers will have daily virtual hours to help students with assignments along with a live session twice a week. Completion of tasks will be expected and will count toward a student’s grades. Teachers have undergone professional development trainings around remote learning and will continue to do so throughout the summer.
Plan ‘B’ concerns
Macon County School Board chairman Jim Breedlove read several parents’ concerns, some wanting their children to return to school and others that preferred staying home. Board member Fred Goldsmith also expressed concerns that “teachers might be out of the loop,” and that he felt that principals should be contacting teachers with information. He also worried about kids that can’t get help from their parents or guardians.
“We might lose them,” he said.
Dr. Baldwin expressed concern about the amount of information that was being disseminated through power points and meetings. He remarked that “so much COVID-19 has been shared it gets confusing as to the plans from each state such as Florida and Macon County.”
Other considerations included the possibility of teachers getting infected with the virus and having to shut down schools due to lack of healthy staff. If a staff member tests positive for COVID-19 they would not be allowed to return to class for 10 days or when they test negative. If staff showed signs of being sick with symptoms such as fever, chills, coughing, loss of sense of taste or smell, they would have to get a doctor’s note that it was caused by something other than COVID-19, such as an ear infection.
“For some staff it is a frightening situation if they have underlying conditions or if they are caring for someone who does,” said Dr. Baldwin. “If those teachers choose to stay at home they will be considered for teaching through the virtual academy to the extent that they can. It is unlikely for any school to go to plan ‘C’ as long as they can staff, there will be live instruction.”
The decision on whether a classroom or school needs to be closed due to exposure will be left up to Macon County Public Health Director Kathy McGaha.
Remote instruction option
For students who do not plan to send their children to school this Fall, the option for 100 percent remote instruction will be available. Macon County Schools is launching a “virtual academy” that will operate with virtual instruction only. The virtual academy will operate as a new school within the district and requires students be registered by July 31 in order to enroll for this Fall. If a student begins the school year at the virtual academy, they will be required to stay there for the entire semester. Those children will still be available for activities such as sports, if sports are permitted to continue this fall.
The virtual academy will have the support of the school system, such as iPads and office hours, as well as provide meals to students. Teachers will staff the virtual academy independently of regular classroom instruction.
For classes such as electives on the high school level, the Macon County school system will utilize resources available such as state contracts and programs to provide those classes and opportunities outside of staffing of Macon County.
Parents can also withdraw their children from the school system entirely and homeschool the child on their own if they so choose. However, they will not have the support of the school system, and their child will not count toward the district’s average daily membership totals.
Once the parent and teachers surveys have been evaluated, the board will make a determination as to how plan “B” will be implemented when school starts on August 17. The Board of Education will hold a special called meeting on July 30 at 6 p.m., to announce their decision.