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Divided school board votes to resume in-person classes February 1

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Survey shows difference between parents, ABSS staff on returning to in-classroom instruction: parents ready to have students return; teachers aren’t

Alamance-Burlington schools will reopen for in-person instruction starting February 1, 2021, following a 4-3 vote by school board members during a special meeting Thursday afternoon (Dec. 17).

Newcomers Ryan Bowden, Sandy Ellington-Graves, Donna Westbrooks, and school board vice chairman Tony Rose, voted to approve a plan that superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson outlined last week for resuming in-person instruction. School board chairman Allison Gant and school board members Wayne Beam and Patsy Simpson voted against resuming in-person instruction.

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.

The return to in-person classes for ABSS appears to have gained momentum following the election last month of three new school board members who had highlighted the importance of in-person instruction during their respective campaigns.

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Under the plan that the school board approved last week, ABSS parents also will have the option to continue remote-only instruction for their children during the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.

The second semester was originally scheduled to begin January 20, 2021. During their special meeting Thursday afternoon, school board members agreed to postpone starting the second semester two weeks to allow a two-week window to modify the plan to resume in-person classes due to a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases, which some public health officials say they fear.

As it stands, ABSS elementary, middle, and high school students are currently scheduled to return to school five days a week for in-person classes. Elementary students will be in school from 7:50 a.m. until 2:35 p.m.; middle and high school students will be in school from 10:00 a.m. until 4:15 p.m., based on timeframes that Benson outlined last week.

In the meantime, ABSS has amassed a number of supplies that will be needed to meet state requirements that are intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of October, ABSS had the following supplies on hand: 2,304 gallons and 3,804 bottles of hand sanitizer; 754 face shields; 54,000 pairs of disposable gloves; 604 thermometers; 5,620 plexiglass dividers; 546,310 disposable face masks; and 189,000 cloth masks, according to information that Benson presented during the school board’s special meeting.

Though federal funding for leave time for ABSS staff is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, employees have three available types of leave they can take if the employee or an immediate family member have an underlying medical condition that poses an increase risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the school system’s human resources department said last week. Published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and updated last month, the underlying medical conditions that present a high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 include: cancer; chronic kidney disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); heart conditions and/or heart disease; a weakened immune system from a solid organ transplant; obesity and severe obesity; pregnancy; sickle cell disease; smoking; and Type 2 diabetes.

Starting next month, ABSS employees will be eligible to use three types of leave time: accrued sick leave and/or annual and personal leave time; unpaid time off; leave time under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The administration also plans to provide childcare and afterschool care for ABSS employees who lack childcare during work hours, Benson said last week.

School board members were told Thursday the school system’s administration is still uncertain about how many teachers will return for in-person classes in February.

ABSS staff versus parents on returning to in-person classes
A recent survey of 2,437 ABSS staff members revealed that: 1,821 (74.76 percent) are currently working in-person at a school or in an office; 566 (23.22 percent) are working remotely; and 49 (2.01 percent) of respondents are currently on leave. [Numbers have been rounded.]

The survey also asked the same 2,437 ABSS staff members what they believed would be best approach to instruction for the second semester. The survey revealed that: 1,604 (65.82 percent) “believe it would be best to remain in remote learning for the majority of students”; 476 (19.53 percent) believe it would be best to transition to “full in-person instruction” while following guidelines for building capacity and social distancing; and 357 (14.65 percent) believe it would be best to use mix of remote and in-person instruction for students who prefer this option.

By comparison, in-person instruction was overwhelmingly favored by ABSS parents who were surveyed in October, based on the data the superintendent presented Thursday. The survey revealed that 61 percent of elementary school students’ parents and 57.9 percent of middle and high school students’ parents preferred having their children return to school for in-person instruction. [Benson’s presentation didn’t include the number of surveys that ABSS sent out or the number of surveys that were completed.] Each school is currently surveying parents to find out how many want their children to continue remote instruction, and the number who prefer to send their children back to school in-person on February 1, Benson said.

ABSS also surveyed 69 existing permanent substitute teachers about their availability; 39 permanent substitutes said they would be willing to be assigned to an individual school to support in-person instruction.

What are other school systems doing?
The school system’s administration also considered how other North Carolina public school systems are currently providing instruction in developing a recommendation for the upcoming semester. A review of 110 of the state’s 115 public systems showed that: 45 school systems are currently providing in-person instruction for pre-K students; 83 systems are providing in-person instruction for elementary school students; 75 are providing in-person instruction for middle school students; and 68 public school systems are currently providing in-person instruction for high school students. [The data that was presented to school board members last week didn’t indicate how many school systems are providing in-person instruction at all grade levels.]

Benson also acknowledged concerns about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Alamance County. The superintendent had originally said, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, that he and other ABSS administrators would be monitoring test positivity rates as they formulate their plans for returning to in-person classes.

Earlier this fall, Benson had said that ABSS students could transition to a “blended model” of remote instruction and in-person classes if the county’s case positivity rate dipped below approximately 5 percent.

However, a graph that Benson Thursday indicated the county’s overall positivity rate was around 11 percent for approximately 6,000 tests that were administered during the week of December 5. ABSS is developing a weekly “dashboard,” similar to a dashboard that Alamance County updates daily, to provide a snapshot of school-based COVID-19 infections to parents and the community (see accompanying chart).

The superintendent also presented results from a study of COVID-19 infections among children that had been conducted between September and November of this year. Results from the study that included 397 children, recently published by the CDC, found that 154 children (or about 39 percent) who had tested positive for the virus were more likely to have attended gatherings such as weddings, funerals, play dates, and parties, but were not more likely to have attended daycare or school in-person.

ABSS was recently approved to participate in a rapid testing pilot program that will enable school nurses to test students and staff who become symptomatic during the school day, Benson announced Thursday. Results from rapid “antigen” tests for COVID-19 will be available within 15 minutes, as he described the testing program, which is scheduled to begin early next month.

Fewer snow days likely
Students would continue to hold onto laptops and portable WiFi hotspots that ABSS had previously distributed for remote instruction, making it less likely that classes will be canceled altogether because of snow or other inclement weather. Instead, instruction would be provided remotely, when feasible; and ABSS will use a coded system to notify parents and students.

For example, under “Code A,” there would be no school for students or staff; under Code B, staff and students would work remotely; under Code C, staff would report in to work while students would receive remote instruction. “Code D” would signify a school day on which bad weather is forecast; in that case, students would attend school as scheduled but would have an early dismissal if conditions deteriorate.

ABSS high school students to take EOCs and CTE exams as scheduled
Meanwhile, ABSS high school students are scheduled to return to campus, around mid-January to take state-mandated End-of-Course (EOC) and Career/Technical Education (CTE) exams. High school students typically take EOCs and CTE exams in mid-January of each year, in keeping with state requirements that govern the minimum days of instruction per semester and other constraints within a state school calendar law that has been in place since 2004. [Elementary school students take End-of-Grade tests in reading, math, and science during the last 10 days of the school year, as required by a State Board of Education policy.]

Testing schedules for ABSS high school students will be staggered to avoid having large numbers of students on campus at the same time, since exams usually take between three and four hours to complete, based on information that was presented to school board members last week.

 

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