BOE to meet in two weeks to discuss any changes to learning plan at Chatham County Schools

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/9/21

PITTSBORO  — The board is set to meet in two weeks to review specific scenarios — including the fully in-person Plan A option — and said it would work with the district on Tuesday to decide on a date for that meeting.

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BOE to meet in two weeks to discuss any changes to learning plan at Chatham County Schools

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PITTSBORO  — The Chatham County Schools Board of Education heard updates on COVID-19 from local health leaders and district administrators at its regular meeting Monday night, ultimately deciding to wait before considering any learning plan changes.

The board is set to meet in two weeks to review specific scenarios — including the fully in-person Plan A option — and said it would work with the district on Tuesday to decide on a date for that meeting.

Also on the board’s agenda was reviewing the 2021-22 academic calendar, hearing about social-emotional supports implemented for students during remote learning, voting on graduation requirements and more. CCS Interim Superintendent Randy Bridges, who was sworn in Jan. 11, emphasized during his comments to the board the importance of flexibility and preserving positive adaptations stemming from the coronavirus.

“As bad as this pandemic is, and it is awful … It’s also important for us as educators to look at what schools will look like post-pandemic,” Bridges said, adding that he’d now visited all the district’s schools and principals. “In general, I hope that we will talk about using the resources of time, people, space, technology and information in different ways to improve the education opportunities for all of our children. I’ve already said to the principals — in my mind, the only thing I want to go back to is the option for children to come to school every day.”

The board’s COVID-19 discussion started with updates from The ABC Science Collaborative, a project which analyzes COVID-related data in partnership with Duke, UNC and surrounding school districts, including CCS. Presenter Michael Smith began by addressing the board’s questions from its last meeting regarding high school specific data.

Smith said the ABC Collaborative found “no differences in distribution of cases by age” among the 32 secondary cases reported. The group analyzed data from 90,000 children and adults from across 54 school districts in the state. While there have been concerns about the increased socialization of high school students, Smith said educators in the study who implemented Plan B at their high schools did not find that to be an issue.

“I fully admit you should never make decisions based on a single study,” Smith said, regarding community concerns that case counts were lower when the ABC group collected its data. He cited the CDC’s recent research, conducted in an area with high community spread, as confirmation of the group’s findings that adherence to the three W’s leads to safe in-person learning.

“I think this is really important because now we have a second study from a different state, a different group of people that really found similar results to ours,” he said.

Teacher vaccinations and hybrid learning

Among educators and school staff, two major concerns with the return to in-person learning have been the emergence of COVID-19 variants as well as not yet receiving vaccinations. Smith stressed that mask-wearing and social distancing are meant to prevent spread under any conditions.

Board members discussed school staff vaccinations at length, ultimately voting unanimously to write a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper urging the prioritization of teachers in receiving vaccinations. When asked by board members when teachers could expect to receive inoculations, Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek said he couldn’t estimate exactly when the county will move to Group 3, which includes school staff as a part of essential workers, due to not knowing the county’s vaccine supply on a week-to-week basis. County and state health officials had previously said teachers would be up for vaccines in the next “weeks to months.”

“Do we have any recourse here to come together and start stirring the pot, and saying ‘How can we push this thing faster?’” board member David Hamm asked, suggesting that the board, Chatham commissioners and health department should urge for school staff vaccine prioritization.

Zelek clarified that a county is able to move to the next vaccination priority group once all the people in the current phase who wish to receive a vaccine have. In Chatham, Zelek said 11,414 residents have received the first dosage of the vaccine, or 14.9% of the population. The health department has administered about 2,000 of those first dosages, he said.

The district presented at-home learning updates to the board, sharing the percentage of students opting for hybrid learning in each grade level range: 72% in K-2, 67% in grades 3-5, 66% in grades 6-8 and nearly 80% in grades 9-12. The other students are on the CCS Virtual Academy track.

Amanda Hartness, assistant superintendent of academic services and instruction, said the district has been planning for the possibility of the passage of Senate Bill 37, which would require all districts to provide in-person learning and four days of in-person learning for special needs students. She said under this model, teachers could potentially navigate teaching up to five groups of students: Plan A students, Plan B students, virtual students, students coming 4 or 5 days a week and quarantined groups in those categories.

The board then discussed the possibility of implementing fully in-person Plan A at certain grade levels, which does not mandate six feet of social distancing. Members expressed concern with this, with Jane Allen Wilson saying she “couldn’t imagine” supporting an option that didn’t require staying six feet apart and Hamm characterizing it as “gouges in the safety plan.” As an example, they brought up potential challenges with transportation guidelines, which would still dictate in most cases keeping one student per seat, even though more students would likely need to ride the bus under Plan A.

“It feels a little contradictory,” Chief Operations Officer Chris Blice said.

Ultimately, the board decided to call a special meeting in two weeks — the week of the 22nd — to discuss any potential changes to the learning plan, reasoning that the district could provide specific numbers and information on various scenarios in that time. Wilson stressed that she hoped those scenarios would only include options in which six feet of distance were required. Board member Del Turner voiced concern with potentially increasing in-person instruction when some studies show COVID-19 variants could lead to more cases.

“I don’t think meeting in two weeks is going to stop you from voicing that opinion, or anybody else,” Chairperson Gary Leonard said. “We’ll just have a little more information. It gives the district time, the administration time to look at some different scenarios, and then we can go from there.”

Here’s what else happened:

• The board viewed two drafts of the 2021-22 Academic Calendar, but did not take action on Monday. The only difference between the two calendars, the district said, is a March 8 work day included in Draft B for election day, as requested by the Board of Elections.

• The district also shared social-emotional supports implemented for students during remote and hybrid learning, saying such supports had been in the works  before COVID-19, starting in 2016. Three signature practices added during the pandemic include welcome check-ins, engaging activities to foster relationships and “optimistic closure activities.”

• The board approved Policy 3460: Graduation Requirements as presented. Those requirements were adopted in 2014 and revised in December 2016. At the time of revisions, local requirement credits were “inadvertently removed from the charts” in policy, the district said, but the revisions adopted Monday matched daily operation practices adhered to since 2014.

• The board also approved the Scholastic Support Center proposal, created in Oct. 2020 in response to the need for supervision for students returning to face-to-face instruction during Plan B. Cost to continue the program for the current enrollment through the last day of school is $150,000, funded primarily through grants rather than local funds.

• A request from Chatham County Parks and Recreations for the opportunity to use school facilities was approved; another request by Silk Hope Recreation will be discussed more when the board meets in two weeks and a MOU could be written to detail cost agreements for use of the facility.

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

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