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Is school board wavering over reopenings planned for March 1, 8?


While Alamance-Burlington school system students are supposedly within weeks of returning to their schools, for the first time in nearly a year, some school board members appeared ready to move their goalpost for reopening again during their latest discussion Tuesday afternoon.

An update on the plan for reopening ABSS schools had been scheduled for the school board’s work session Tuesday afternoon as an informational item; but at least one school board member, Patsy Simpson, was under the impression it was up for a vote. “Before we proceed with a vote, before making a motion, I need a little more clarification on that [state] senate bill that’s going to the house that would specifically mandate all schools would be open,” she said Tuesday afternoon.

School board chairman Allison Gant reminded Simpson this week that the update on reopening was “for information only, unless we make a change,” adding that if a board member wanted to make a motion, it would be considered. “We can always put this to [a vote at] the night meeting,” Gant told Simpson, noting that, currently, there is no motion to change the plan to reopen March 1. “Hopefully, we will get an update from the governor about vaccinations for teachers,” Gant said.

School board members originally voted 4-3 in December to reopen schools February 1; last month, they voted 5-2 to push the date for reopening to March 1, after ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson said more time was needed to prepare, a delay that he also said could potentially give teachers an opportunity to receive the vaccine for COVID-19.

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During their nearly three-hour discussion Tuesday afternoon, Simpson, Gant, and other school board members aired a litany of concerns with reopening that ranged from uncertainty about adequate ventilation in schools to whether school buildings are sufficiently clean, and what benefit might be derived from being students back to school at this point. But much of their concerns this week centered on when teachers will be eligible to receive one of the two vaccines currently available for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Benson pointed out several times during the school board’s work session that the state senate had introduced a bill requiring North Carolina public school systems to offer an in-person option for learning. Later Tuesday afternoon, the senate voted 29-15 to pass the bill, which will be forwarded to the state house for consideration, according to multiple news reports.

School board member Wayne Beam said Tuesday afternoon that his connections in Raleigh, which include leaders in the state Democratic Party, have said it appears likely the house will vote to pass the bill and that the governor has signaled his intention to let it pass into law without his signature. “It will sit on his desk for 10 days, and then it becomes law, which is what I think is going to happen,” Beam speculated.

CDC director: ‘Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening’
The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Rochelle Walensky said last week that vaccinating teachers is not required to safely reopen schools, based on data demonstrating that it’s safe to resume in-person instruction, as long as other COVID-19 guidelines are followed. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” the CDC director said last week at a press conference.

CDC researchers published a study weeks ago that revealed little evidence of school-based transmission of the virus in schools that have reopened. The researchers analyzed data from 90,000 students and employees in 11 North Carolina public school systems that had resumed in-person instruction for nine weeks and documented “just 32 infections” during that time, with no cases of students transmitting the virus to staff, according to multiple news stories that have been published.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) held a press conference last week in which they urged schools to allow more in-person instruction. Cooper and Cohen have recommended that students in kindergarten through fifth grade to return to school five days a week, with minimal requirements for social distancing, and for students in grades six through 12 to receive a mix of in-person and online instruction.

However, many teachers, including the N.C. Association of Educators, are now insisting that schools should only reopen once teachers receive one of the two vaccines for COVID-19, according to news reports. So far, eligibility for the vaccine has been limited to people 65 or older and healthcare workers, based on a “rollout” plan developed by NCDHHS. Cooper announced during a press conference Wednesday afternoon that teachers will be eligible to receive the vaccine later this month.

Some school board members press health director, trying to get commitment on vaccines for teachers, criteria for safe school reopenings:

The current plan for reopening ABSS schools, which have been closed since March 2020, calls for elementary students to return for in-person instruction two days a week, starting March 1. They would be broken into two groups (“cohorts”): one group would attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays; and the other group would attend school on Thursdays and Fridays. Both groups would receive their instruction remotely (i.e., online) three days a week. Starting March 8, ABSS middle and high school students would follow the same pattern for attending school in person, based on the reopening plan that school board members approved last month.

All ABSS parents and students will continue to have the option to receive instruction remotely (i.e. online), Benson has emphasized.

School board vice chairman Tony Rose had introduced a motion last month to have students continue receiving instruction remotely for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year. His motion failed, 3-4, with Beam and Simpson voting with him in favor. Voting against Rose’s motion were Gant and board members Ryan Bowden, Sandy Ellington-Graves, and Donna Westbrooks.

Benson said Tuesday that each ABSS school will communicate its specific plan to parents and students, while the administration will continue to communicate and reinforce “general precautions that will be in place” to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

School board members turned their attention to concerns about ventilation in ABSS schools – floating the idea of installing special filtration systems or filters to improve air quality – after quizzing Alamance County’s health director earlier during their latest meeting (see related story, this edition).

Simpson said Tuesday that she’d heard from ABSS employees whom she said worry about working in classrooms that don’t have windows or windows that don’t open. “I’m sitting here, and people are texting me pictures of classrooms that don’t have windows,” or that lack adequate ventilation, she said during the work session.

“As a system it would be a complex to make that happen,” ABSS assistant superintendent Todd Thorpe explained Tuesday afternoon. He said that ABSS had contacted one of its vendors to see what type of filtration devices they have and how long it would take to get them installed in schools. “They are coming up with some solutions for us,” he said. “We’re not the only district – every other district is in the same situation. We would be facing a major HVAC upgrade to get that filtration system [that Rose apparently referenced].”

The school board had voted in November 2018 to obtain a $10.2 million loan from Bank of America to finance energy repairs and upgrades for heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems; lighting; and equipment, projects which were planned in addition to the renovations and new construction to be funded by the $150 million bond package that voters approved for ABSS the same month.

As required by a state law that governs the process, known as performance contracting, the loan contract for ABSS was subsequently approved by the Local Government Commission within the state treasurer’s office; and Alamance County’s commissioners, who passed a resolution agreeing that they would not reduce their annual appropriations to ABSS to ensure that the school system could meet its monthly payment obligations for the loan. The 15-year loan that ABSS obtained from Bank of America is currently scheduled for payoff on May 30, 2034, according to a copy of the installment agreement for the loan.

Simpson repeatedly expressed concerns Tuesday about cleanliness of schools and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees.

ABSS officials had outlined plans last May to use more than $1 million from the $9.5 million ABSS received from the first federal coronavirus relief stimulus package, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), to purchase sanitizing supplies; hire additional custodians; and to increase cleaning at schools and on school buses. ABSS is estimated to receive an additional round of federal stimulus funding (CARES Act II), which would bring the total to $35 million, based on figures that ABSS finance director Jeremy Teetor provided during a joint meeting with the county commissioners last month.

“I think where I’m still a little squishy is the logistics,” Rose said, asking Thorpe whether he thinks there will be enough bus drivers and cafeteria workers to work once schools reopen.
“We do feel we have enough bus drivers at this point,” Thorpe said, though he noted that they will need to run extra routes to meet state requirements to reduce school bus capacity by about half of their existing capacity.

There are teachers and substitutes available to provide both types of instruction, Benson said in response to another question that Rose raised about staffing levels for in-person and online instruction. Referring to an earlier concern raised by school board members, he said “a handful of teachers” had submitted resignations.

“I understand there’s a benefit for students to be [at school] in person,” Rose said, but asked Benson whether it would be worth it to bring students back for what he estimated would be 20 to 21 days of in-person instruction.

“It sure is worth it to get our 220 seniors back to graduate on time,” Benson said, referring to approximately 220 seniors that the school system’s administration has identified as being at-risk for not graduating on time this spring. “There are inherent benefits to working directly with students,” the superintendent said, adding that the latest performance data demonstrates that students aren’t where he and other ABSS officials would like them to be.

“We have children who are failing, and I do not feel like we are going to be able to meet those needs without being back in person.”

Data Benson presented earlier in the discussion indicated that the on-time graduation rate is projected to decline to its lowest level in five years (from 84.5 percent in 2019-20 to 80.6 percent in 2020-21) and that academic performance in reading, math, and science has declined from last year.

“We are most effective when we are working with our young people in person,” Benson emphasized Tuesday, reiterating his concerns about students who are failing this year. “We are trying to capitalize on really quality direct instruction. The governor had said last week that 90 out of [115] school systems are back in person. I’d like to think that if they can do it, we can too.”

Asked whether they prefer in-person or remote instruction, in-person instruction was preferred by a majority of parents at 16 of the 20 ABSS elementary schools; all six middle schools; and four of the six traditional high schools and the ABSS Early/Middle College located at Alamance Community College’s Graham campus, based on results from a survey that were presented to school board members last month.

School board members indicated this week that they could resume their discussion about reopening at their next meeting on February 22.

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