Monday, June 14, 2021

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ABSS pushes back school openings to March

After a four hour discussion Tuesday afternoon, Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 5-2 to bring students back for in-person instruction in March, postponing a date of February 1 reached just a few weeks ago.

ABSS elementary students will return to school starting March 1; middle and high school students, March 8.

This week’s vote represents a reversal of the board’s earlier 4-3 vote late last month to return to in-person instruction starting February 1.

ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson cited the ability of school employees to be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine – possibly later this month – as the basis for his recommendation to delay resuming in-person instruction by an additional month.

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ABSS has been providing instruction remotely since March, after Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order closing the state’s 115 public school systems – initially for two weeks, which he later extended through the remainder of the 2019-20 school year – to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Cooper and N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen gave the state’s public school systems two options for providing instruction during the current 2020-21 school year: remote instruction; or a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction.

Benson said Tuesday that he had reconsidered the February 1 date for resuming in-person instruction after he recently learned from Alamance County’s health department that ABSS employees could be eligible to receive the vaccine later this month.

“[Prior to the winter break in late December] we didn’t think that was going to happen as quickly as it may happen,” Benson explained during the work session.  “[We think] a large number of folks are comfortable returning to in-person [instruction] if they are able to get the vaccine.  There’s no timeline that is in concrete but, with the recommendation I’m making today, there will be increased likelihood they will have access to the vaccine.”

School board vice chairman Tony Rose had initially introduced a motion Tuesday afternoon to have students continue receiving instruction remotely for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year that ends in June.  Rose’s motion failed, 3-4, with school board members Wayne Beam and Patsy Simpson voting in favor.  Voting against the motion were school board chairman Allison Gant and board members Ryan Bowden, Sandy Ellington-Graves, and Donna Davis Westbrooks.

Based on the tentative plan that Benson outlined for school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon, no students would attend five days a week.

Instead, ABSS elementary students would be broken into two cohorts that would attend school in-person on alternating days, starting March 1. “Cohort A” would attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays; “Cohort B” would attend on Thursdays and Fridays; and students would have remote instruction on Wednesdays.

Starting March 8, ABSS middle and high school students also would be broken into two cohorts.  Students whose last names start with letters A through K would attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays; students whose last names start with letters L through Z would attend classes on Thursdays and Fridays; and all students would have remote instruction on Wednesdays.

Benson has said that parents who wish to have their students remain on remote instruction will retain the option to do so.

At the conclusion of a nearly four-hour discussion, school board members voted 5-2 to accept the superintendent’s revised recommendation to resume in-person instruction – with the caveat that the board will review Alamance County’s positivity and hospitalization rates for COVID-19 at the February 9 work session – for elementary students, starting March 1, and for middle and high school students on March 8.

Voting 5-2 to accept the superintendent’s revised recommendation, with the amended requirement to review the county’s case rates on February 9, were: Beam; Gant; Ellington-Graves; Simpson; and Westbrooks.  Beam said he changed his vote because he felt like delaying the return until March would potentially provide sufficient time for ABSS employees to get the vaccine.

Bowden and Rose voted against the superintendent’s recommendation.  Throughout the nearly four-hour discussion, Bowden maintained his position that the board needed to stick with the original February 1 target date and to provide parents who want to send their children back to school with that option.  Rose changed to opposition, particularly after noting that he and his family members recently contracted the virus, Rose said that remote-only instruction would reduce potential exposure for ABSS students and their families.

This week’s vote on resuming in-person instruction does not affect several hundred pre-kindergarten and adapted curriculum students, who returned for in-person instruction in early November.

Due to the lengthy discussion about resuming in-person instruction, school board members also voted Tuesday afternoon, prior to entering into their twice-monthly closed session to consider personnel recommendations, to schedule a special-called meeting to take up the remaining items that had been listed on the agenda for their work session.   The date for the special-called meeting had not been announced Tuesday afternoon.

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