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In-person learning returns

Two of the four public school systems in the Roanoke-Chowan area have released detailed plans regarding the opening of the 2021-22 academic year, to include a mask mandate for students and staff.

Hertford County Public Schools (HCPS) and Gates County Public Schools (GCPS) will welcome students back to the classroom in August. Students will attend classes in person five days per week.

In Northampton County, no decisions have been made yet about what precautions and procedures will be in place when the new school year starts. According to Northampton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Pamela Chamblee, the county’s school board will discuss the issue at their next regular meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 9.

A spokesperson for Bertie County Public Schools was not able to release information, saying that Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood was on vacation this week.

Meanwhile, the Hertford County Board of Education, at its meeting held July 26, opted to begin the school year requiring a facemask mandate for staff and PreK-12 students. All HCPS facilities will maintain social distance when possible.

“Our school district is working to ensure that we take every precaution to keep students safe,” said HCPS Superintendent Dr. William T. Wright Jr. “That is why the Board of Education has instituted a 100 percent mask mandate for staff and students while on the premises or property of our school district. This includes mask mandates for students being transported by bus. We expect that teachers and students should remain masked during the entire instructional day.”

HCPS students return to in-person learning as early as next week (Aug. 5) for those attending the Early College High School. All others return to class on Aug. 23.

“We understand that in person learning is the best way for students to learn,” Dr. Wright noted. “While our teachers did an amazing job partnering with families last year, we know that students perform better when they are receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Those students will not be required to wear school uniforms, per a decision reached by the Board of Education at their June 28 meeting. However, in-lieu of the Student Uniform Policy, the HCPS Dress Code Policy will be strictly enforced. It is permissible to continue to wear uniforms but not required as long as it does not violate the current Dress Code Policy.

In terms of sports, Dr. Wright said those decisions are forthcoming.

“However, since we ended the [2020-21] season playing sports, I would assume that we’ll play when the seasons normally begin, with the proper precautionary actions in place,” he stated.

There are some concerns in other school districts regarding the availability of bus drivers.

“At this stage, we expect that we’ll have enough bus drivers, however we will continue to closely monitor that situation,” Dr. Wright said.

“The biggest thing about all of these decisions is that because of the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, these decisions could and most probably will change at some point,” he added. “The pandemic certainly is presenting itself as a multi-layered challenge, therefore we make plans knowing that the science can require us to revisit processes and procedures at any time. At HCPS, we will always strive to keep students and staff safe first, and then educate them.”

Over in Gates County, the Board of Education met July 27 in a special called meeting. There, school board members unanimously voted to open the 2021-22 academic year Aug. 23 on a traditional five days-per-week schedule with in-person learning. The decision included a requirement for all PreK-12 students, along with teachers and staff, to wear a facemask while indoors. Facemasks will not have to be worn outside during recess, outside during physical education class, or during any other outside activity. Social distancing of at least three feet will be required while students and staff are having meals. When riding a school bus, students and staff will be required to wear a facemask.

“We know there are those who may oppose the wearing of facemasks,” said GCPS Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams. “However, we also know that wearing facemasks is one of the main defenses against the COVID virus and its variants. While COVID-19 rates have decreased since vaccines have become available, our county still has a low percentage of citizens vaccinated and children under the age of 12 are not eligible for a vaccine.

“Additionally, within the last few weeks, a COVID-19 variant is resulting in increases in COVID cases throughout North Carolina and the United States,” Dr. Williams continued. “We are committed to doing all that is necessary to remain in school by keeping COVID cases to a minimal or non-existent.”

Dr. Williams added that GCPS will continually monitor the status of the COVID-19 virus and variants, the infection rates of the county, and the local vaccination rates.

“As with the past school year, we will use this information to tailor our COVID-19 procedures as needed,” he said.

“Thank you so much for your support and patience as we weather this pandemic together. We are eager for the return of students to traditional in-person learning on August 23. Please continue to stay safe and healthy,” Dr. Williams concluded.

As for athletics, Jeremy Wright, GCPS Director of Student Services, said at this time he expects the middle school and high school fall sports seasons to start on time. High school sports can begin practice on Monday, Aug. 2 and first contests can begin Monday, Aug. 16. The middle school will begin fall sports practice when those students return on Aug. 23.

“Our middle school conference is currently still working on the fall sports schedule,” Wright said.

Mask guidelines adopted by the Board of Education will be in effect for all sporting events unless new guidance is provided from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association or from North Carolina Health and Human Services Department. Athletics will also follow the StrongSchools Toolkit for all other covid guidelines until further information is provided.