Moore County Schools will be able to open their doors this fall.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday afternoon that students will return on a part-time basis so that schools can comply with strict social distancing measures the state is setting to try to limit spread of the coronavirus.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Cooper directed local school districts to pursue the “Plan B” reopening scenarios that the state tasked them with developing last month, which calls for both in-person and remote learning.
“The reality is that the disease continues to spread throughout the country, and some states are seeing their hospitals fill up,” Cooper said. “But the good news is that we now know more about how to slow the spread and how to protect ourselves. We plan to put those protections in place and open our schools in a careful way.”
Cooper also announced that North Carolina will stay in Phase Two of its reopening plan for at least three more weeks.
Plans had called for Phase Two possibly ending Friday, but it will stay in effect at least until Aug. 7, Cooper said.
“Our virus trends are not spiking like some other states,” Cooper said. “We have hospital capacity and our percent positive is still high but it’s steady. However, our numbers are still troubling and they could jump higher in the blink of an eye.”
Before the governor’s announcement, Moore County Schools had already discussed possible scenarios for the start of the year. The first day of school is currently scheduled for Aug. 17.
During a five-hour video conference on Monday, the school board discussed options from a full reopening of schools to a return to virtual instruction for all students K-12. Under the intermediate “Plan B,” the district will be allowed to repopulate classrooms up to 50 percent of their capacity.
Last week, the state released reopening guidelines that detailed half a dozen iterations for what Plan B could look like in practice, from rotating students in and out of school by grade level to moving all high school classes online and using their campuses to serve younger students in a socially distanced fashion.
Cooper said on Tuesday that all students returning to school will be required to wear face coverings, as will teachers and school staff. He pledged that the state will provide five reusable masks for every student, teacher and staff member by the start of school.
The state is also directing schools to operate as cautiously as possible, limiting nonessential visitors, activities with community groups and large assemblies.
“We know schools will look a lot different this year,” he said. “They have to in order to be safe and effective. Public health experts and school leaders developed these safety rules to protect our teachers and students and their families.
“As with many choices during the pandemic, we’re working with the best information and science that we have today. We know there will always be some risk to in-person learning, and we’re doing a lot to reduce that risk.”
Individual school districts have the option of proceeding with “Plan C,” resuming full-time remote learning for all students.
Cooper cautioned that a mandatory shift to remote learning could still occur if statewide coronavirus case numbers continue to escalate in the month before school starts, or even after.
“The most important opening is that of our classroom doors,” he said. “We want to be done with this pandemic, but it’s not done with us. We’ll continue toward the school year working together with everyone’s safety in mind.”
Schools expected the state to announce which plan they should carry out at the beginning of July, but Cooper delayed that decision as new coronavirus cases mounted. In the meantime, school districts across the state have rolled out their own proposals for “moderate social distancing” that are tailored to their districts, and in some cases to individual schools.
Though the state’s guidelines would permit up to 50 percent of students to be at school on any given day, Moore County Schools administrators cautioned the board on Monday that may be too ambitious a goal, and to expect to see schools closer to 25 percent capacity under that scenario.
Under Moore County’s Plan B, elementary and middle school students will attend school one day per week to comply with heightened social distancing requirements. High school classes will be moved entirely online, with the exception of some career and technical education courses, art and music, and Junior ROTC.
Though schools themselves will still be permitted 50 percent occupancy, school buses will likely be a limiting factor. The state has mandated that “moderate social distancing on buses” translates to one student per seat, unless they live in the same household. That effectively reduces bus capacity to about a third in most cases.
Apart from their assigned day on campus, students will continue online learning. School staff say that online learning this fall will be more rigorous than the last 10 weeks of the spring semester.
Board member Stacey Caldwell, a former elementary school teacher, said that sending students to school only one day a week may not be an efficient use of time.
“I don’t see the concept of kids coming in one day a week and then the rest of the week being off, only because they haven’t seen their friends for the whole week,” she said. “So the teachers are going to be babysitting and trying to calm them down and getting them orderly for the first three hours before they can even teach. That plan to me doesn’t seem very realistic.”
Online learning time will vary from 30 minutes a day for pre-kindergarten students to 90 minutes for fourth- and fifth-graders. Middle school students will devote 30-50 minutes to each course. While only middle and high school students now have round-the-clock use of school-supplied computing devices, the district has plans to put Chromebooks in the hands of third- through fifth-graders, and to supply iPads to K-2 students.
As proposed, Moore County Schools’ “Plan B” would put teachers in the position of having a quarter of their students in class on any given day, while also teaching the other three-quarters of their students online.
“We looked at a lot of options around Plan B, because that is the logistical one. That’s the tough one. That’s the one that isn’t pretty; it’s ugly,” said Mike Metcalf, Moore County Schools’ executive officer for academics and students support services. “We looked at A/B weeks, we looked at using the high school campuses and bringing the students and spreading them out. There are staffing issues with that; there are all kinds of challenges. We’re asking a lot of our teachers on Plan B.”
In a remote-learning-only scenario, district staff say they’re better prepared to deliver valuable learning experiences than they were this spring. The state announced school closures on March 14, effective immediately, and the district commenced online learning within a week.
“We learned a lot of lessons from last spring,” Metcalf said. “At that time we were thrown into remote learning. We had to overcome the barriers and the challenges very quickly. We had to pivot very quickly.”
Most students finished out the year with the grades they held on March 13, or were given the rest of the year to improve failing grades through online assignments. This year, online school will count for as long as it goes on.
“In the event that we’ve got to be on Plan C, or even with Plan B, everybody’s got to be leaning in and giving it their best shot because this time everything will be graded right from the beginning,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey.
Moore County Schools is also rolling out a “Plan D” as an option for families interested in committing to an entire semester of online learning. Enrollment for the “Connect Virtual Academy” will be open through July 23.
If that plan proves a popular option, the schools could revise their Plan B proposal. Moore County Schools is currently taking transportation requests, which will also play into that decision.
“Could it be that we would end up with potentially two days a week in school rather than one day a week in school, so that the groupings would look different? Is that a remote possibility?” board member Helena Wallin-Miller asked.
Metcalf said that could be the case if enough families can transport their children to school rather than relying on buses.
“That and transportation will really impact Plan B: how many students sign up to be transported, how many we can put on that bus and safely and reasonably bring those students in, and how many students select Plan D, the virtual academy, will really impact what we can do with Plan B,” he said.
Even when the schools are given the green light to fully reopen, some remote learning may still take place — both where families opt for the virtual academy, and in the event that a student or staff member tests positive. If that happens, their teachers and classmates will be out of school for 14 days’ quarantine.
“If we don’t take care of our adult workforce, it doesn’t matter what plan we’re in,” said Grimesey. “If 25 percent of our teachers or 40 percent of our teachers are out because of COVID-19, we’ve got a real problem.”
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.