The Chatham County Board of Education approved the district's suggested motion to comply with school reopening bill, Senate Bill 220, on Monday, voting 3-0 to send 4th-5th graders back under Plan A on April 12 instead of April 19.
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This story has been updated to reflect the board's action at a special meeting held Monday.
The Chatham County Board of Education approved the district's suggested motion to comply with school reopening legislation, Senate Bill 220, on Monday, voting 3-0 to send 4th-5th graders back under Plan A on April 12 instead of April 19.
The approved motion also provides EC and 504 students in 6th-12th grades the option to return to in-person learning under Plan A on April 12, and revised the system's academic calendar to make April 1 — the compliance deadline outlined in the new state legislation — an optional work day instead of a half day. This revision was made to ensure the district wouldn't need to bring K-5 students back for just one half day before the April 2 holiday and spring break the following week.
"We didn't think it was a real good idea to bring all of our K-5 kids in for an early release day and then send them on spring break the following week," Interim Supt. Randy Bridges told the board. "So we're asking that you change that April 1 early release day to a work day and that way we will cover everything I've just described in terms of complying with Senate Bill 220."
Board members Melissa Hlavac and Jane Allen Wilson were not present for the vote.
The reopening law, passed March 11, requires N.C. public schools to offer Plan A to K-5 students and Plan A or B to 6-12th graders. The state's districts must comply with the legislation by April 1, which is 21 days after Senate Bill 220 was signed into law. While districts could immediately implement the change, the bill says systems can comply no later than the first instructional day after the 21-day period. CCS is on its spring break the first week of April, so April 12 is the first full instructional day after the bill’s April 1 compliance deadline.
After the BOE's March 8 vote, CCS was on track for Pre-K through 3rd grade to return April 12 and 4th-5th on April 19. Last week, Amanda Hartness, the assistant superintendent of academic services & instructional support division, said CCS’s board would have to adjust its previous decision and begin Plan A for all Pre-K through 5th grade students on April 12 to comply with the bill. At the time, April 1 was still scheduled as a half day; April 2 is a holiday that marks the beginning of spring break. EC and 504 students in grades K-5 returned Tuesday, March 16.
“The half day on April 1st is something that we are looking into and the board will have to address next week,” Hartness told the News + Record in an email last week. “I am not sure what will happen with that piece.”
Following Monday's motion, April 1 will now be a work day.
Senate Bill 220 was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper March 11, after a deal between Cooper and the GOP was announced the previous Wednesday morning. The bill requires all public elementary schools to offer in-person learning under Plan A, and middle and high schools to offer in-person learning under Plan A or B. The legislation applies to N.C. public schools, with the exception of charter schools. It also doesn’t apply to private schools.
“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said March 11.
Under that legislation, Hartness told the News + Record last week that CCS would also need to bring back EC and 504 students in 6-12th grades for 4 days per week under Plan A. All students will still have a completely virtual learning option. At its Monday special meeting, the board called another special meeting for Thursday, March 25, to discuss how Senate Bill 220 pertains to 6th-12th grade students, who can now attend in-person learning under Plan A — an option not available at the time of the board's March 8 vote.
In Chatham County Schools, elementary students began returning for in-person hybrid learning under Plan B on Oct. 19, with middle school students returning Dec. 7 and high schoolers on Feb. 1. Under that plan, students who opt for in-person learning, rather than the district’s virtual academy option, attend school twice a week.
CCS administration proposed a plan to the board at its Feb. 23 meeting that would move PreK-3rd grade students back to Plan A on March 22, and 4th-5th on March 29. At its March 8 meeting, administration expressed concerns with having enough time to buy furniture “conducive to distancing pieces” under Plan A. Previously, the administration said it could only guarantee four feet of physical distancing at its schools under Plan A, though many classrooms would allow for six. The new furniture — which would help schools to maximize physical distancing — wouldn’t arrive for three weeks after ordering, the district said.
The new legislation requires schools operating under Plan A to partner with the ABC Science Collaborative to share anonymous data, the draft of the bill says. CCS has already been in partnership with that group, which previously told the board that reopening under Plan A and providing three feet of distancing would be safe. The CDC updated its guidance for schools on Friday, reducing its social distance recommendations from six feet to three for elementary schools and for middle and high schools in communities where transmission of COVID-19 is not high.
“CDC is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky in that updated guidance. “These updated recommendations provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction.”
While the new law requires in-person instruction under Plan A, a mid-week cleaning day is still allowed, meaning offering only four days a week of in-person classes would be permitted. That means CCS can maintain its mid-week planning day, offering in-person instruction four times a week for Pre-K through 5th grade students.
Hartness advised the board at its Feb. 23 meeting to continue to keep the mid-week planning day in place for teachers under Plan A, citing staff survey results which showed 92% of respondents said they’d prefer a 4-day in-person week with an at-home planning day under Plan A. Just 8% said they’d prefer a 5-day in-person week.
“I think right now the biggest way we can support our teachers is to continue to have that day for planning,” Hartness said at the time.
“What we’re asking teachers to do right now is more under either plan,” she emphasized again at the board's March 8 meeting.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.