Many students, parents and teachers are thrilled to be back, after being on a remote-learning track since last March. Still, with all the unknowns of the pandemic, some safety concerns remain.
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BEAR CREEK — During a fire drill on the first day of the second week of in-person hybrid learning at Chatham Central High School, civics teacher Aedrin Albright playfully reminded students to remain six feet apart using quite the innovative apparatus: two yard sticks secured with silver duct tape.
“This cohort was one second slower than the last cohort,” said Assistant Principal Matthew Wilkins while feigning a stern expression and looking at his stopwatch.
Donning masks and spread across the front lawn of the school building, students and staff waited for their cue to return back inside. When it was time, the yard-stick contraption re-emerged, serving as both a limbo stick and a reminder to students to socially distance.
Only the second week of Plan B for high schools in Chatham County Schools — and the third day of in-person learning for the Group A cohort of students — such reminders are important as students and staff alike keep adjusting to the district’s COVID-19 protocol. That protocol includes rigorous cleaning before, during and after classes, universal masking, symptom-screenings, socially distanced spaces enforced with signage and stickers and a hybrid learning schedule to de-densify school spaces and allow for a cleaning day halfway through the week. Many students, parents and teachers are thrilled to be back, after being on a remote-learning track since last March. Still, with all the unknowns of the pandemic, some safety concerns remain.
Karla Eanes, principal at Chatham Central, said while the first week went smoothly, she can tell it’s been an adjustment for students especially.
“For the most part, students were glad to get back. They need and look forward to that true face-to-face guidance,” she said. “Even though they’re not always particularly happy about some of the restriction pieces — it’s brand new, but after a while it won’t even faze them, it’ll just kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is just what we do.’ It is different, but I think they’re glad to be back.”
Eanes said changes made to lunch were particularly difficult for students, as they’re no longer able to socialize with friends and the time is very structured for safety purposes. Still, she felt her school was prepared to open safely.
“I knew I missed them, I didn’t realize how much,” she said of seeing students. “You’re accustomed in the summertime to seeing those growth and height changes from June to August, but oh my goodness, from March to February, it was like, ‘You’re really so grown up.’”
‘For the most part it feels like a normal school day’
Grace Leonard, a junior at Northwood High school, told the News + Record that even though students were split into two cohorts, it still felt like there were a lot of people in the building.
“Coming back to school was very nerve-wracking on the first day,” Leonard said. Still, she said she’s benefited from a more personal learning experience due to her highly reduced class sizes.
“For the most part it feels like a normal school day,” she said, “excluding the masks and class sizes. I do still worry if coming back so soon was the right decision as case numbers continue to rise.”
In Chatham, there have been 3,918 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, and 70 deaths. At CCS, there have been 76 total student cases reported, 71 staff cases and one cluster, according to the district’s tracking dashboard. State health officials have said this low rate of secondary spread is consistent with studies that suggest in-person learning is safe when mask-wearing and social distancing are followed.
Some teachers, mostly at the high school level, have raised questions about whether older students will spread COVID-19 at higher rates. The ABC Science Collaborative, a project partnering with 54 districts across the state including CCS, told the Board of Education on Monday that they found no discernible differences among age groups, and that the three W’s guard against threats of spread.
Still, some high school teachers have told the News + Record they’re concerned about not yet being vaccinated, along with parts of the school day that could violate CDC guidelines, such as eating indoors with others or trying to keep students distanced in crowded hallways.
“Keep in mind that teachers want to get all students back to school as much as anyone in the community,” Northwood teacher Edward Walgate told the board on Monday during public comments, “but it must be done with safety first in mind.”
Chatham School of Science and Engineering Principal Bobby Dixon said students followed protocols, making for a smooth return to school. At the School of Science and Engineering, only 9th and 10th graders returned, as upperclassmen are full-time at Central Carolina Community College’s campus or 100% online.
“Our planning consisted of tweaking our schedule a bit to minimize the movement in the building and arranging lunch to be eaten in their classrooms,” Dixon said, adding that the school’s goal is to teach and engage students in creative and safe ways.
“I really have not had any concerns that might be out of the ordinary,” Dixon said of the return to Plan B. “Students are thrilled to be back, as well as the staff. However, there still exists some concern with the unknown.”
“Our district has done an excellent job in preparing us,” he added.
Future possibility of Plan A
Twin brothers Anthony and Andrew Trotter, juniors at Northwood, said they were glad to be back at school and look forward to continuing in-person instruction. For now, they agreed phasing back into in-person learning would be helpful to adjust to protocol and being at school all day.
“It was just different than normal school,” Andrew said, “but it was better than being at home — for me to see friends, other than at the grocery store.”
Their mother, Tammy Trotter, who is an elementary school teacher at CCS, said her own experience seeing the district’s safety protocol gave her confidence in sending her sons back to in-person learning.
“I felt like it went great,” she said of the first week. “They went to school very excited and they came home very excited.”
“I had no concerns going into it, because my mother’s school was doing fine,” Anthony added.
The brothers attend on the same hybrid schedule. That’s because CCS organized hybrid schedules alphabetically across all school levels so that siblings would go to in-person learning on the same days.
In Chatham, it’s unlikely high school students will have full in-person learning for a while. In N.C., elementary schools are the only public schools currently allowed to opt for Plan A, but state health officials have recently said the Plan B model could allow in-person learning if six feet of distance is maintained. At Monday’s BOE meeting, district administration said maintaining that distance would not be probable at most of its high schools.
“I like the plan we’re on now,” Andrew said of Plan B. “I do want us to try to move forward. It doesn’t have to be this semester, but I definitely want to be on a track to Plan A by next semester, hopefully, if we can.”
Northwood sophomore Olivia McMurray said she was glad to be inside the school building again, and that she felt safe and like her classes ran smoothly. Wearing a mask for six hours straight, she said, “was a bit tough, though.”
“It was really nice to see actual human beings in-person again, even people that I didn’t know, and it made class a lot more interesting,” she said, adding that in-person instruction has improved her motivation to work, even if only twice a week.
“Being in school again after almost a full year will definitely take some getting-used-to,” she said. “I have no doubt that schools will be able to adjust yet again and make our experience the best possible. I really appreciate all the planning and work teachers have put into making learning during a pandemic possible.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @HannerMcClellan.
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