CCS middle, high schoolers can return under Plan A on April 19, BOE votes Thursday

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/25/21

PITTSBORO — Students in 6th-12th grades will have the option to attend in-person learning under Plan A on April 19, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education decided at a special meeting on …

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CCS middle, high schoolers can return under Plan A on April 19, BOE votes Thursday

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PITTSBORO — Students in 6th-12th grades will have the option to attend in-person learning under Plan A on April 19, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education decided in a 4-0 vote at a special meeting on Thursday.

Earlier in the week, the board voted 3-0 to bring 4th-5th graders back a week earlier than planned on April 12 to comply with state school reopening law Senate Bill 220. The law requires N.C. public school systems to offer in-person learning under Plan A to elementary students and hybrid or daily in-person learning to middle and high schoolers. All grade levels at CCS will maintain a mid-week cleaning day under Plan A, meaning students will attend school in-person four times a week and virtually Wednesdays. EC and 504 students in K-5 returned under Plan A on March 16.

The district presented several options to the board during Thursday's meeting, including keeping 6th-12th grades or 9th-12th grades in Plan B. Other options included beginning middle schoolers with K-5 on April 12, beginning high schoolers April 19 or beginning 6th-12th graders April 19. In the end, the board voted for the latter option, reasoning that phasing in the return could be logistically beneficial.

“I just want to make sure we do it right,” Board chairperson Gary Leonard said.

Board member Melissa Hlavac missed the meeting because of a work conflict, but Leonard said she’d conveyed to him her desire that 6th-12th graders return.

The state’s districts must comply with the school reopening law, passed March 11, 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. At Monday’s meeting, the board voted on the district’s recommendation to make April 1 a work day instead of an early release. CCS is on its spring break the first week of April, so April 12 is now the first instructional day after the bill’s April 1 compliance deadline.

"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 Superintendent Randy Bridges told the board at its March 22 meeting. "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."

During the district’s presentation to the board on Thursday, Amanda Hartness, CCS’s assistant superintendent of academic services & instructional support division, said high school students’ return would require the most change from current practices, as the district will have to offer all students — including those currently on a completely virtual track — the offer of returning to in-person classes.

“We hope that we could get as many students to stay on their NCVPS or CCCC courses, where possible, because many of our students take those online courses in a normal school year,” Hartness said. “It might not be as big of an impact as we think, but we won't know that until we communicate that to families. So there is going to be a little bit of prep at 9-12 that we just don't have at K-8.”

The district also discussed Plan A implications and considerations, emphasizing that the transportation and lunch physical distancing requirements were both lessened under the plan. Plan A does not require 6 feet of distancing for any grade level; the CDC and state now recommend at least 3 feet of distance. Under Plan A, buses have no seating restrictions, but Chief Operations Officer Chris Blice said the district will still aim to not seat three students to any seat.

The StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit also no longer requires 6 feet of distancing during meals, and Blice said that while maximizing distance is the goal, the Chatham County Health Department approved eating with 4 feet of distance with maintenance of current mealtime procedures — unmasking as a group, no talking or movement from place to place while unmasked and remasking before any talking or movement is allowed.

Previously, the administration said it could only guarantee 4 feet of physical distancing at its schools under Plan A, though many classrooms would allow for 6. The district purchased new furniture — which would help schools to maximize physical distancing — for elementary schools, and Blice said the district had already ordered furniture for older students in anticipation of their return to Plan A.

Board member David Hamm asked Chatham Health Director Mike Zelek, who gave brief remarks at the meeting, about his 4-feet recommendation when the CDC and the state have said 3 feet is OK.

“What I say is, you maximize the space you have, right. And so the four feet is not a steadfast rule,” Zelek said. “If you can get 6 feet, get 6 feet, if you can get 7 feet, get 7 feet, right? It's a continuum, it's not so much an either-or.”

Following a brief discussion, Hamm made the motion to bring 6th-12th graders back April 19 under Plan A.

Before voting, the board reviewed last month’s staff survey results, which indicated a strong preference for the 6-foot requirement to remain in place, along with keeping a mid-week cleaning day if the district were to move to Plan A. At the board’s last two meetings, Hartness has recommended maintaining that day to support teachers by providing extra planning time. Senate Bill 220 allows a mid-week cleaning day.

“What we’re asking teachers to do right now is more under either plan,” Hartness said at the board's March 8 meeting.

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 the hybrid plan, students who opt for in-person learning, rather than the district’s virtual academy option, attend school twice a week.

After more than a year of school with more virtual than in-person learning, in-person learning will increase to four days a week for all students who choose the plan by the end of April.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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