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Q&A: School Boards Face Challenges In Bringing Back Students Full Time


Republican leaders want public school students in North Carolina to have the option of returning to five-day-a-week, in-person classes as soon as possible. They laid out their argument during a press conference Wednesday. It was partly a chance for Lt. Gov. and gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest to criticize the phased school reopening plans of Gov. Roy Cooper. 

"We can't wait until Jan. 1 for our kids to be back in school," Forest said. "That needs to happen now. Parents need to have that choice now. That is the plan."  

On Thursday, Cooper announced an option for elementary school students to return to full, in-person instruction beginning Oct. 5.

But is it really that simple for school districts to do amid the coronavirus pandemic?  WFAE's David Boraks posed that question to Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations at the North Carolina School Boards Association. 

Credit Courtesy Leanne Winner
Leanne Winner

Winner: I think that we have to, as a state and school districts across North Carolina, rely upon our medical experts in the state. And school districts are not medical experts. You kmow, they have to rely upon both the CDC guidance, the Department of Health and Human Services at the state level. And then we've also had a number of districts who have become part of a collaborative between Duke and UNC Chapel Hill.

Boraks: And what are they saying about reopening safely? 

Winner:  The absolute three most important things are: No. 1, wearing masks. Everyone has to wear a mask and they need to wear it all the time. Then No. 2 and No. 3, you know, are the ones we continue to hear, which is you must socially distance -- which is at least six feet away from each other. And then the third one is wash the hands on a regular basis. 

If you want all students whose families want them to be able to go back in person, the notion that they be able to go five days, I think the biggest question there is can you do that in a socially distanced way? And you may have some school buildings in this state, potentially where you could, because they were either already being underutilized and thus they have extra classroom space or you have enough parents that have opted for a virtual option. 

Boraks: So actually, that prompts a question: Do we have any information about the percentage of students who might come back full time? Have you heard of any school systems that have done surveys to try and gauge this? Because that will determine whether we can have that social distancing.

Winner:  Right. A number of school districts have done that and I think the numbers vary from district to district. They also vary drastically from school to school within the district. So you may have one school that maybe 20-30% want to remain virtual. And you may have another school in the district who's at 60 or 70%. 

Boraks: Another question that came up and which is ongoing as school districts try to decide what to do is the potential cost of coming back full time. What are the things that school districts have to think about right now, and are there costs involved?

Winner:   There are a number of costs involved. We believe most school districts have the initial PPE that they want. But we don't know that they have the ongoing PPE that they need. 

Boraks:  Personal protection equipment.

Winner:  Yes. ... The General Assembly did not fully approve the amount that was requested by the State Board of Education when they were in session a couple of weeks ago. And so, you know, is there enough and for how long? Is there a point where we're going to run out? And then, what do we do? There is also across many districts, certain personnel that are very concerned about coming back. And not only do we need to make sure that we have the things necessary for them to be protected, but also get them to a comfort level where they understand how they can keep themselves safe, how they can keep their students safe. 

Boraks:  Well, you're talking about teachers and staff who would have to come back and be interacting with students, and some of them may not feel comfortable with that. As far as the idea of a quick return to five-day-a-week, in-person classes, what else are school boards thinking about? 

Winner:  Folks don't want to do a stop-start. They don't want to rush things, come in, it not be done correctly. And, you know, two, three weeks later, they're closing right back down. And then we have to get through this all again. 

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