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Some school board members concerned that quarantined students have received no instruction since school started

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Several Alamance-Burlington school board members seemed flabbergasted last week to learn that the school system’s administration hasn’t put a plan in place to ensure that students who are required to quarantine for 14 days due to potential exposure to Covid-19 will be able to continue receiving instruction.

School board members Patsy Simpson and Sandy Ellington-Graves said during last Tuesday afternoon’s (September 14) meeting that they have heard some ABSS students who are quarantined due to testing positive for, or being exposed to, Covid-19 haven’t received any instruction since the school year started on August 23.

ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson told school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon that the administration is waiting on the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to determine whether it will be possible for students to “remote into their classrooms” if they’re in quarantine.

A bill passed by the General Assembly, which Gov. Roy Cooper signed on August 30, allows school systems to provide virtual instruction (i.e., via the internet) to a student, with parental consent, Benson explained in outlining the bill’s Covid-19 provisions for public schools.

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The legislation that Cooper signed into law last month mirrors similar legislation passed last year by the General Assembly, which required all N.C. public school systems to develop a “remote learning plan” and extended the 2020-21 school year by five days, from 185 to 190 days.

Public school systems that plan to provide remote instruction, rather than closing during inclement weather or “other emergencies,” have until October 1 of this year to submit a remote instruction plan (RIP) to the State Board of Education, based on a summary of the bill prepared by the state board that Benson presented.  The remote instruction plan must also incorporate any plans to provide virtual instruction to individual students who are in quarantine, which would also require parental consent, based on the state board’s summary.

Benson told school board members that the latest legislation specifically permits school systems to shift to remote instruction due to a Covid-19 emergency – for example, if an entire classroom had to quarantine, or a school closed due to multiple clusters of the virus. But the new law doesn’t explicitly state whether individual students who are required to quarantine would be permitted to participate in their classes via the Zoom, Canvas, or Google Classroom teleconferencing platforms.

“This is urgent right now,” said Simpson, who participated in the work session Tuesday afternoon by phone.  “I personally know of one [student] right now that is on the second 14 days for quarantine.  I think we’re [depending on] a bunch of bureaucrats right now that don’t have their fingers on the problem.   What are the consequences of going ahead and doing that, just going remote [for students who are required to quarantine]?”

Benson said he thinks it could put ABSS in a precarious position to go against a law.

The school board’s attorney, Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington-Smith law firm in Raleigh, advised Benson and school board members to “push for something in writing from DPI.”

Simpson countered that she knows other school systems are offering virtual instruction to students who are quarantined.  “We know how important it is,” she said.  “How much instruction are children missing?  To wait until October, I don’t think we’re doing the best thing by our children.”

Ellington-Graves echoed Simpson’s concerns.  “I am disappointed in our board and our school district that we’re just now talking about it,” she said Tuesday, noting that the bill had been in negotiations for a while.  “What we’re doing is not working.  I know for a fact that we had kids [who] went home the first day…We are three, four weeks into school; we don’t have a plan.”

Ellington-Graves said she’d been contacted by one parent whose child has been quarantined since school started and has been “upstairs playing X-Box” in his bedroom and has yet to receive any instruction.  In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Ellington-Graves said she’d been contacted by 14 parents or guardians who’ve expressed similar concerns.

“It’s not that there’s not a plan for assisting students who are at home,” Benson explained.  “There is a mechanism for students to continue to learn that’s better than what was in place prior to the pandemic – largely it was packets [with hard copies of lessons being sent home].”  He said there are ways for students to “remote into class in real time,” but it won’t happen overnight.

“It’s not like I’m switching on a light switch here,” Benson said Tuesday.  “There’s some work that goes into it.”

“What are the reasons we can’t do this today?” asked school board member Ryan Bowden.

“There’s quite a variance across schools,” Benson responded, apparently referring to the number of students who may be quarantined; grade levels and subject content; and staffing availability.

Amy Richardson, director of accountability, research, and evaluation for ABSS, told school board members Tuesday afternoon that the administration would have to “explore the quantity of students that are out,” which she said is a “moving target” on any given day.  While teachers have the technology needed to provide virtual instruction – that equipment and infrastructure was put in place so all ABSS students could receive instruction remotely during much of the 2020-21 school year – the administration is evaluating staffing levels to determine how many students, and at which grade levels, can be served, Richardson explained.

“There are so many [variables] at play at any given point” Richardson said.  “To say one exact thing will be occurring doesn’t fit content; we will give some options, but it will be fluid.”

Simpson questioned why the school system’s administration seems to be making the situation more complicated than it needs to be.  “I don’t see the problem sending out forms to parents [and saying], ‘here’s your permission slip; here’s your Zoom link.’”

“It seems to me we’re talking about two things,” said school board vice chairman Tony Rose.  “We’re talking about removing the bureaucratic red tape and the logistics of making it happen.”  The school board can remove the red tape, he said, adding, “As far as the logistics of making it happen, we have to leave that to staff.”

Ellington-Graves pressed for the school system’s administrators to give a definitive timeframe for developing a plan to provide virtual instruction for students who are required to quarantine for 14 days.

Rose responded that while he supports removing the red tape, he doesn’t support dictating to the administration how and when to put a plan in place for virtual instruction.

School board members subsequently voted 7-0 last Tuesday afternoon to authorize ABSS staff to develop a plan to provide virtual instruction to quarantined students, with parental permission.

School board members have another meeting scheduled for this Tuesday afternoon (September 21) when the subject is likely to be considered again.

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