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Remote learning continues

Students at public schools in the Roanoke-Chowan area will spend the next nine weeks just as they have done since August….learning from home.

Over the past eight days, the boards of education within the four local counties met to decide what plan of action to use for the remainder of 2020. Back in August, all four boards voted to use Plan C (virtual/remote learning) for the first nine weeks of school. That initial grading period of the 2020-21 academic year ends later this month.

The local boards had the option to change to another plan, to include Plan A, which Governor Roy Cooper approved effective Oct. 5 for grades K-5 only.

Although less restrictive than Plan B, Plan A continues to include important safety measures like face coverings for all students, teachers and staff, social distancing, and symptom screening, but does not require schools to reduce the number of children in the classroom, which is used as the main focus in Plan B.

“On October 12, the Hertford County Public Schools’ Board of Education accepted my recommendation for students and staff to remain on Plan C, which is total remote learning, through the remainder of the first semester, which ends on December 18, 2020,” stated Dr. William T. Wright Jr., Superintendent of Hertford County Public Schools.

“This decision was made to continue to place the safety of our students and staff as our top priority. Please continue to take all precautions to remain safe and we look forward to continuing to provide high-quality education as we progress through this pandemic,” Dr. Wright added.

Northampton County’s Board of Education also met Oct. 12 and voted to remain on Plan C.

At their meeting on Oct. 13, the Bertie County Board of Education unanimously voted for all students in PreK-12th grade to continue remote instruction (Plan C) through the second quarter (Oct. 26-Dec. 22).

At a special called meeting of the Gates County Board of Education on Oct. 9, they chose for students to remain on Plan C for the second nine weeks.

After nearly one hour of discussion between the five board members, Leslie Byrum put on motion on the floor that called for Plan C to continue for the immediate future.

“I motion to start the second nine weeks on Plan C, but we as a school board, along with our superintendent, assistant superintendent and other stakeholders, work aggressively between now and the start of the second semester [January] to bring your children back to school under Plan A for face-to-face learning. We can make this work; we’ve come a long way since March in how we are delivering education,” Byrum stated.

Board Vice Chairman Glendale Boone offered a second to Byrum’s motion, and it passed without objection.

Prior to the board’s discussion, School Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams reminded those in attendance of the decision made by the board of education in July to approve Plan C for the first nine weeks.

“There are challenges to Plan C, such as access to the Internet, broadband availability, and cell tower reception in some areas,” Dr. Williams said of the remote learning format. ‘However, after much sacrifice of the parents, and the hard work and dedication of the teachers and administration, we have progressed through the learning curve and are providing consistent and quality instruction for the students as we continue to address connectivity issues.”

Dr. Williams recommended to remain on Plan C for the second nine weeks. He listed the reasons for making his recommendation, saying it was based on the fact that since the reopening of school in August (for staff only), four employees (two at the elementary schools and two at the Central Office) had tested positive for COVID-19. Those positive tests, he said, led to several other employees having to quarantine themselves.

He added that after a lot of hard work to get the virtual learning platform in place, it appears to be working well and is widely appealing to teachers and students.

Additionally, Dr. Williams said there are a great number of school system employees who fall under the high risk category for becoming infected with COVID-19. He said that is because they have pre-existing medical conditions.

“Over 50 percent of our staff have indicted to me and to their administrators that they do not feel comfortable returning to school where there will be a large number of people that increases the probability of [COVID-19] exposure,” Dr. Williams stated, adding that reopening schools to all students and staff may lead to some teachers resigning or retiring.

Following comments from Dr. Williams, all five board members offered their opinions on what plan they thought would be the way forward.

“Between now and January 6, I would like to see us enter into some type of discussion to see if can move along with getting some of our younger children (K-5th grade) back in school,” stated Sallie Ryan. “Maybe we should just look at the Pre-K, K thru 3rd grade….they’re the ones missing out on the most [face-to-face] instruction. I have a kindergarten age grandson and he could care less what’s on that [computer] screen. Not because of what the teacher is doing – my hat is off to all of you for the work you are doing. I think that age group would benefit the most by being in school prior to January 6.”

Amanda Pacitto focused her comments more on being a stay-at-home parent to school-age children rather than a school board member.

“Have you gone into someone’s home and seen this from a parent’s side of the fence,” she asked. “It is a struggle every day to keep our children focused, even though I’m there to help mine. I’ve seen a huge change [in my children]. It breaks my heart to see my children struggling.”

She pointed out that neighboring school districts that have returned their teachers and students to the classroom are making it work, especially for younger children.

“Our children need to go back to school, especially those in elementary school,” Pacitto stressed. “I feel we can make it work. We need to get back to some sort of normalcy on their behalf. Without that I feel we’re only setting them up for failure.”

Byrum noted that he had received phone calls, texts and emails from parents who are struggling with being their child’s teacher and experiencing difficulty with internet connectivity.

“We don’t have the infrastructure in Gates County to handle this [remote learning],” Byrum observed.

Addressing a statement made by Dr. Williams earlier in the meeting about school system employees being in the high risk category for becoming infected with COVID-19, Byrum said he knew 10 such individuals, adding they would not be able to return to school if and when it does reopen. He also addressed school bus drivers, saying to his knowledge 14 do not feel safe about getting back behind the wheel and transporting students while the pandemic remains an issue.

“If we lose teachers and bus drivers, it’s our job as a school system to come up with ideas to safeguard those people,” he stressed.

Byrum stated that he supports remaining at Plan C for now, but asked Dr. Williams and other administrators to, “become aggressive and plan to go with Plan A for all K-5 students on Jan. 6. We can pull together and do this and protect our students, our teachers, our staff, our bus drivers, our cafeteria staff, and our custodians. We, as Americans, have learned since March of ways to protect ourselves from this virus.”

Byrum voiced his opposition to Plan B, saying it isn’t fair to students or teachers due to split learning schedules.

“Your child’s teachers will spend half of the day to teach the [limited number of] students in the classroom and then go teach the remote learning students,” Byrum said. “We don’t know if there will be double runs of buses [to promote social distancing] and lunch schedules will change. Plus we’ll have to hire substitutes to fill in for the teachers who are at high risk for COVID and will not be back in the classroom.”

Boone said she had prayed on several occasions about this issue.

“As a former educator myself, I believe that K-5 needs to go back to school; this where they get their foundation of learning,” Boone said. “But I do support staying on Plan C until at least the next semester. I don’t want to see anyone get sick. As a board we must look out for our students and staff and do the best that we can for them.”

“There’s no one in this room who cares more than Gates County children than myself,” said board chairman Ray Felton. “My concern is not about what’s going on in 2020. My concern is if we make a decision to go back to school too soon, we lose teachers because it’s not safe enough for them. We don’t have replacements. This decision today will impact us for years to come. I stand for Plan C at least until the end of the year.”

Following additional remarks by the school board members, Byrum put forth his motion, which was approved.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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