PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Schools Board of Education unanimously voted at its regular session meeting Monday night for Pre-K through 3rd grade students to start in-person learning four …
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This story was updated March 9.
PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Schools Board of Education unanimously voted at its regular session meeting Monday night for Pre-K through 3rd grade students to start in-person learning four days a week under Plan A on April 12, with 4th-5th grades moving to Plan A on April 19.
In a separate motion, the board also unanimously voted for Exceptional Children and 504 students in grades K-5 to return four days a week under Plan A beginning March 16.
Under both motions, Wednesday will continue to be a remote learning day to allow teachers to have extra time for planning.
“What we’re asking teachers to do right now is more under either plan,” said Amanda Hartness, Assistant Supt. of Academic Services & Instructional Support, of the mid-week planning day. Previous CCS staff survey results showed 92% of respondents said they’d prefer a 4-day in-person week with an at-home planning day under Plan A.
Monday’s meeting followed the board’s Feb. 23 decision — in a 3-2 vote — against phasing in Plan A for EC and K-5 students. At that meeting, board members Jane Allen Wilson, Del Turner and Melissa Hlavac dissented, with David Hamm and Gary Leonard voting in favor of the motion.
At that Feb. 23 special meeting, the board voted on a timeline proposed by district administration which suggested bringing Pre-K through 3rd grade back under Plan A March 22, and 4th-5th graders on March 29. The plan also proposed bringing EC and 504 students back under Plan A within the 15-calendar-window that would’ve been required by Senate Bill 37, which was later vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
At the time, the board grappled with what its members characterized as conflicting messaging from official health sources and their guidance on the importance of physical distancing. The dissenting members ultimately decided at the time to vote in favor of maintaining six feet of distance, citing a desire to see more teachers vaccinated before making the shift.
“I’m hesitant to go to Plan A at this time,” Wilson said at the Feb. 23 meeting, “but it seems like we’re close. And if we get there, I think the administration has done a lot to make sure we’re ready.”
At Monday’s meeting, the district said April 5 would mark the date that all staff who’d received a vaccine would be fully vaccinated. Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek said at Monday’s meeting that the dept. had provided approximately 550 CCS staff with their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with more expected from a clinic held earlier that day. Zelek said the total number of CCS staff vaccinated is likely higher, due to those outside of the county’s vaccine-interest database or those vaccinated outside of the Chatham. While public health guidance has stressed teacher vaccinations as an important but ultimately unneccesary step in providing safe in-person instruction, many educators have emphasized how important innoculation is to their sense of personal safety working in-person.
The vaccine innoculation timeline, along with the district’s concern with having time to buy furniture “conducive to distancing pieces” under Plan A, led to the pushed-pack phasing timeline the board ultimately approved. Hamm, who made the motion and amended it twice, said it was his preference to stick with the original plan — starting March 22 and 29. In the end, he said he wanted to propose whatever would “get the kids back in the classroom.”
CCS will also be on Spring Break April 2-9. Some board members, along with some district staff, expressed wanting to start phasing in student groups to Plan A after spring break to provide as much consistency as possible.
Plan A and the six-feet requirement
Earlier in the board’s discussion on COVID-19, Hamm had questioned health guidance urging six feet of distance.
“I don’t need to make the CDC to wave that magic wand,” he said of future guidance that might suggest less physical distance. “I’ve got school systems across North Carolina — to say the least, across the nation — that have been doing this and have been successful.”
“It’s the level of risk you’d be willing to accept,” Zelek said to Hamm regarding moving away from the six-feet requirement.
As a local health official, Zelek said he looks to the CDC and the state health department for guidance, but said “promising data” might be on the way regarding requiring less distance. The CDC currently advises physical distance “maximized to the greatest extent possible” for all grade levels, and the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services requires six feet for grades 6-12. Current data suggests Plan A does not lead to secondary transmission of COVID-19 with proper masking, demonstated most reliably at the K-5 grade level.
Though Plan A is currently only allowed for grades K-5, the DHHS has said middle and high schools could offer in-person learning every day of the week if six feet of distance is maintained; six-feet of distance is not required under Plan A. The district’s Feb. 23 presentation regarding Plan A considerations said that it would “be possible to maintain a minimum of four feet of social distancing in all K-5 classrooms,” though many classrooms could maintain six feet.
During the meeting’s public comments session, multiple parents asked the board to move to Plan A, citing declining student achievement rates during remote learning and student mental health. Parents referred to data from the ABC Science Collaborative suggesting Plan A does not lead to increased secondary spread as a reason CCS could safely offer in-person learning. Hamm also mentioned this data during the board’s COVID-19 discussion.
“We can be successful, we can do the protocols,” Hamm said of Plan A.
Before Monday’s meeting, a small gathering of parents and students held signs outside of Horton Middle School urging the board to move to Plan A five days a week for K-12 students.
Katie Henry, an organizer of the event and parent to three CCS students, told the News + Record that she and other parents are aware of state-imposed restrictions, but would like to see the district “get creative and think outside the box to get these kids in the building all five days.” She noted the fact that some middle schools are part of K-8 schools in Chatham and have lower enrollment, allowing for more distancing. At previous meetings, CCS administration has said it was their understanding that district policy legally had to apply across all schools, and couldn’t be different on a school-by-school basis.
“(I’m) so excited for K-5 students but my 8th, 10th and 11th graders need school just as much, and I have had it with the whole school community treating them worse than actual covid patients,” Henry said. “That is the stigma these kids are being given, that they are contagious and you shouldn’t interact with them. It’s not right and I will not allow my kids to feel that way.”
While the public comments session largely included parents, two staff CCS members also spoke, expressing concerns about Plan A and the lack of required six feet of distance under the plan. Their concerns reflected those expressed by the Chatham County Association of Educators (CCAE) in a letter sent to the BOE last month after its Feb. 23 meeting.
“Keeping these measures in place will ease the mental stress of staff who are returning to campuses, and reassure families that in-person learning is being conducted safely. We believe it is important to maintain these measures and remain cautious given the resurgence of the virus at the end of last year,” the letter said. “We urge the school board to maintain the current safety measures and keep Chatham schools on Plan B. We sincerely thank you for all of your time and consideration as we work to offer the best possible public education to the families of Chatham County in the safest environment possible.”
Here’s what else happened:
• Interim Supt. Randy Bridges recognized the Northwood High School mens basketball team, which played Weddington High School for the 3A state championship on March 6. The team lost 47-56, but brought great pride to the district.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these four seniors and the other 12 players and coaching staff,” Northwood Head Coach Matt Brown said at the meeting. “Thank you for all the love and support for us this year.”
• The board heard a presentation by North Carolina School Board Association (NCSBA), which showed results from the superintendent search community and staff surveys and leadership profile materials. NCSBA Staff Attorney Jim O’Rourke said there were “well over 30 applications” for the superintendent position at the time of the meeting. The deadline for the application was midnight on Monday; the board said it would meet in closed session March 22 to begin reviewing applications.
• The board voted to allow administration to approve Seaforth High School transfers for students who wish to remain in the Dual Language program.
• It also approved the 2021-2022 Local Current Expense Budget, totaling $40,280,000 at a 6.7% ($2,530,000) increase when compared to the 2020-2021. The significant budget changes are in the new school startup expenses, classroom teachers, employee salary supplement, charter schools payments non-contributory employee benefits.
• The board voted to rename Horton Middle School, “George Moses Horton Middle School,” to fully reflect is namesake and to be consistent with other schools in the districts named after an individual. This followed a request to do so by Chatham Community (East) Branch President Mary Nettles at the board’s Feb. 8 meeting.
The cost to change the signage at Horton Middle School to reflect the name change to George Moses Horton Middle School will cost $12,000-15,000, administration said.