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Next Tough Choice For NC Schools: Creative Scheduling Or Keep Kids Home?

Ann Doss Helms

North Carolina school districts now have two options for reopening in August. They can start with a mix of remote and in-person classes that allows for social distancing, or decide it’s not safe to bring students back and start the year remotely. 

For weeks now, Gov. Roy Cooper and other state officials have been telling school districts and charter schools to plan for three possible reopening scenarios. Tuesday afternoon, Cooper eliminated one of them: Schools will not reopen at full capacity.

That’s because the state’s COVID-19 numbers remain stubbornly high.

That leaves local officials with two choices – one of which the state quietly revised at the last minute.

"North Carolina schools will be open for both in-person and remote learning, with key safety precautions to protect the health of our students, teachers, staff and families," Cooper said. "This is the Plan B that we asked schools to prepare."

The governor’s plan, posted Tuesday, says schools must ensure 6 feet of social distancing, but it eliminates the requirement from an earlier version of Plan B that required schools and buses to operate at 50% capacity. The 6-foot requirement is still going to require alternative scheduling for most districts.

For instance, Iredell-Statesville Schools immediately announced a plan that has high school students doing most of their classes remotely, while elementary and middle school students spend two days in school and three days at home each week.

Union County approved a four-day weekly rotation for all students, with everyone learning remotely on Fridays.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is still considering the second option: Plan C, an all-remote opening.

CMS has crafted a social distancing plan that has all students in school for one week then working at home for two. The school board will decide at an emergency meeting Wednesday whether that path is safe enough in a county that’s seeing high COVID-19 caseloads.

CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew says district leaders are still consulting with health officials.

"We’re balancing what we’re seeing locally with the health conditions with what we need to do to keep our grown-ups in the building safe and healthy and our kids educated," she said Tuesday.

And Cooper said Tuesday that even if districts open schools under the social-distancing plan, they have to let families choose remote learning if they don’t believe their children are safe returning to school.

'No Good Options'

That means lingering anxiety, uncertainty and clashes of opinion remain. Consider good friends Alexandria Keilen and Kristine Barberio. Both teach at Socrates Academy, a charter school in Matthews. Both have children in Union County Public Schools.

Keilen says she wouldn’t have felt safe going back at full capacity, but she’s also worried about opening remotely. It was tough enough in March, she says, after students and teachers had months to get to know each other. In August students and teachers won’t have any face-to-face connection.

Keilen says she prefers Plan B, which at Socrates would translate to one week in school and one week at home for students. But, she says, "I think we are in a situation where there’s really no good option, you know? It’s picking between several bad options."

Credit Courtesy of Kristine Barberiio
Courtesy of Kristine Barberiio
Kristine Barberio, a teacher at Socrates Academy, with her three kids, who attend Union County Public Schools.

Barberio thinks its unwise to return at all until the state sees a consistent drop in COVID-19 cases. She suspects schools will struggle to make all the new safety procedures work. Schools could see outbreaks and be forced to close.

"It just seems to me that the reality will become unmanageable," she says. "And I personally believe it’s much more challenging to put kids back in school in either a full-time capacity or some hybrid capacity, and then have to withdraw that."

And Barberio's family illustrates the complexity that will play out across the region. Her children -- one in elementary, one in middle and one in high school -- will be doing Union County's four-day weekly rotation while she works at Socrates. And her husband is an educator in South Carolina.

Many Unknowns Remain

Important questions remain. For instance: Will there be enough teachers and other staff to execute the hybrid plan? State officials don’t know. State School Board Chair Eric Davis says districts are polling their employees about whether they feel safe returning to schools.

"We certainly anticipate that some teachers and staff members will not be able to return to school for a variety of reasons, while others, as the governor mentioned, are energetically awaiting the day when they can get back with their students and move forward," he said.

CMS has polled employees about their intentions to return in person, seek a leave or alternative assignment because of COVID-19, resign or retire. The district has not released results.

And how many students will return when schools reopen? Wake County schools opened enrollment for the district’s remote option and had 22,000 signups by Tuesday morning.

Other families may look for different options. Dominique Rice, who runs a Charlotte-based firm that matches families with nannies and governesses, is now matching teachers with small clusters of families who want to create neighborhood based “micro-schools.”

"It’s been crazy," she said Tuesday afternoon. "So today was the first day that we posted. We haven’t even rolled out our packaging and we’ve had over a dozen teachers banging down our doors for jobs and we’ve had over 10 families contact us since 9 a.m. this morning."

What about child care for kids whose parents have to go to work? Dashew says if CMS goes with the hybrid plan, she thinks CMS can line up community partners to provide supervision during the weeks when students are learning remotely. But if CMS decides it’s not safe to bring anyone back, groups aren’t likely to consider child care safe, she says.

And then there are sports. For now they’re on hold in CMS and many other districts. Dashew says local schools are waiting for more guidance from the state's athletic association.

"We don’t have any firm announcements on sports just yet," she said Tuesday evening. "And I know that is super important to some of our high school students and their parents."

And there’s political tension. On Tuesday North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Mooreand state Superintendent Mark Johnson all issued statements criticizing Cooper’s plan. Johnson said he’d like to see more local control, while Moore and Berger said he should have done more to get students back in schools.

Berger, Moore and Johnson are Republicans, and Cooper is a Democrat.

Cooper says the state is sending schools five masks for every student and employee. Over the next month, the 1.5 million students and 200,000 employees of North Carolina’s public schools will be looking for a lot more supplies and guidance as they prepare for Aug. 17.

The CMS board's special meeting on reopening plans is at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The board, sensitive to the fact that they're asking students and employees to return to in-person contact, will hold its first in-person meeting in months, at Mallard Creek High. But to preserve distancing spectators will not be allowed; the public can watch on Facebook.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.