Chatham reacts to Plan A for CCS middle, high schoolers

Posted 3/31/21

In the last month, shifting state and federal COVID-19 guidance on school reopening led to a whirlwind of district decisions increasing in-person instruction — including in Chatham.

While …

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Chatham reacts to Plan A for CCS middle, high schoolers

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In the last month, shifting state and federal COVID-19 guidance on school reopening led to a whirlwind of district decisions increasing in-person instruction — including in Chatham.

While students, parents and school staff alike have long expressed a desire to safely return to the classroom, many hold mixed views on the latest decision to return middle and high schoolers to school under Plan A.

The Chatham County Schools Board of Education voted on March 22 to send 4th-5th graders back a week earlier than previously planned on April 12 — along with Pre-K to 3rd students — in order to comply with Senate Bill 220’s deadline. Three days later, the board also voted on March 25 to send 6th-12th graders back April 19.

“I just want to make sure we do it right,” board chairperson Gary Leonard said at that meeting.

Over the last year, the board has consistently faced criticism from community members with conflicting opinions about reopening — a reality often acknowledged in the board’s discussions.

For many parents, some outspoken advocates of increasing in-person learning, the return to in-person instruction has not happened quickly enough.

Bridget Coates, who has four children at CCS, said virtual learning is not working for her students.

“I don’t understand how students at the high school level are always the last group to receive consideration,” she said.

Her children fear what their college careers will look like with dropping grade point averages, few community service options and difficulty participating in extracurriculars.

“These are all valid concerns and fears. They cause anxiety,” Coates said. “It causes my kids to stay on their laptops for 10-plus hours, obsessing over school. And they are still not making good grades. They need real, quality instruction.”

Katie Henry, parent to three CCS students, was pleased with the decision, but wished it had come sooner.

“(I’m) so excited for K-5 students but my 8th, 10th and 11th graders need school just as much,” Henry told the News + Record following the board’s March 8 decision to phase in Plan A for Pre-K to 5th graders.

Henry also criticized the board’s decision to not comply with the new school reopening law sooner, saying April 12 was the absolute latest the district could comply. Senate Bill 220 requires districts to offer Plan A for elementary students by April 1 — 21 days after the bill was signed into law — but technically allows compliance no later than the first instructional day after the 21-day period. At its March 22 meeting, the BOE approved the district’s recommendation to make April 1 a work day instead of a half day, making April 12 the first day after the 21-day deadline.

“The lack of urgency from our board is disappointing,” Henry said.

Her kids are excited to double their in-person time, where they’ll now see friends they haven’t seen at school all year. The virtual learning days have been challenging for her kids, so Henry said they’re all happy about a closer sense of normalcy.

“Again, the whole delay, just waiting on it is the only downside,” she said, adding she hopes to see five days of in-person learning, and the resumption of activities like proms and graduations, soon — particularly when sports have resumed.

“But you know, we just have to take it day by day right now,” Henry said. “So a battle won, but the war is still is still ongoing, for sure.”

Some teacher concerns

The school reopening law also requires districts to offer Plan A or Plan B to middle and high school students. Previously, Plan A was not an option for these age groups due to the required 6 feet of social distancing.

Several teachers told the News + Record that the shift from 6 to 3 feet of distancing concerned them; school staff largely conveyed in a February district survey they wanted to see the 6-feet requirement remain in place.

The district’s current online guidance for Plan A says its schools will “enforce social distancing to the greatest extent possible.” At previous board meetings, the district said it could only universally guarantee 4 feet of distance, though many classrooms could provide 6 feet under Plan A. CCS also purchased new furniture for all grade levels in school to maximize distancing.

One CCS teacher, who spoke to the News + Record on the condition of anonymity, said the current Plan A decisions don’t take into consideration how old some of the school buildings are. For instance, she said, in some schools windows don’t open and the air conditioning doesn’t work well.

“We are a bit perplexed by the decision because we all feel nothing has been planned,” the teacher said. “Science says Plan A, but how (are) 20 students going to eat together in a trailer? Transitions will be longer, we will be wasting so much time. We feel it is really easy to make a decision when you are not the one in the classroom.”

This teacher had not received specific guidance for how Plan A would work by the beginning of the week, she added, including how lunch, mask breaks and hallways transitions will work. Still, she doesn’t fault administration, who she says are “breaking their backs trying to figure things out.”

Amanda Hartness, CCS’ assistant superintendent of Academic Services & Instructional Support, told the News + Record Tuesday morning that principals received new guidance on Monday, but “not that much is different.”

She said on Tuesday school staff should’ve heard about the new guidance by the end of the day.

Some teachers expressed concerns that they will have new classes following the transition to Plan A, since school districts are required by Senate Bill 220 to allow current Virtual Academy students to switch to the in-person learning option. The district previously required a semester-long commitment to the fully remote track, particularly for high schoolers.

The district’s FAQ page for Plan A says K-8 students may return to in-person learning, but encourages 9th-12th graders to remain in the Virtual Academy for a full semester, which is through the end of the school year.

“However, if a family wishes to return students to in-person instruction they may do so,” the website says. “At the high school level this could require a teacher and/or course change, depending on the availability of the in person courses.”

The deadline to move from Virtual Academy is April 9 so the district “can review schedules and make any necessary adjustments” before the April 12 and 19 moves to Plan A.

With new legislation, an updated StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit and changed CDC guidelines, school districts have had to make many adjustments in the last month especially — after an entire year of COVID-19 adaptations.

The CCS teacher said these changes are stressful for school staff.

“How can you, in the middle of a pandemic, when you are dealing with so many people, have ‘changes’ by the day?”

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

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