Phase 2 extended three more weeks through Aug. 7

NC Governor Roy Cooper paved the way for school superintendents to put a plan in place for when school starts Monday, Aug 17 – as concrete as can be expected given the mercurial virus.

At a press conference Tuesday, July 14 he extended Phase 2 for another three weeks (until Friday, Aug. 7) and said school superintendents could pick either Plan B or C to reopen schools.

“Plan B is the baseline for the state – we will move forward with plan B but school systems can decide for themselves if Plan C is best for them,” he said.

Plan C is 100% remote learning at home. 

Plan B requires social distancing, face coverings at all times for teachers, staff and students in grades K-12 as well as symptom checks for everyone entering school buildings, among other things.

“This means a limited number of people in the buildings and it might mean alternate days or weeks,” said Gov. Cooper. “One-way traffic within the schools is also encouraged as well as eating lunch in classrooms if the cafeteria can’t accommodate students for social distancing and capacity, and no large gatherings in auditoriums at this time.”

Gov. Cooper said the state is furnishing five reusable masks for each teacher, staff member, and student; as well as cleaning supplies because classrooms, buses, and equipment will have to be cleaned consistently.

“The Macon County School System has been preparing for the reopening of our schools on August 17,” said MC School Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “We are excited that the Governor’s Order will allow 50% of our students to return to our classrooms on a daily basis. We are finalizing our Plan B and will present these plans to the Board of Education for its approval on Monday night. Moving students within the facilities will be done to improve social distancing, but we still can’t exceed the 50% capacity of the buildings.”

The 50% capacity is part of Phase 2 restrictions which are in effect statewide for all businesses and gathering places.

Superintendent Baldwin said his principals, teachers and staff had been developing detailed plans for all three possibilities, A, B, and C, as well as planning for those parents who may choose to homeschool their children and who will then continue with remote learning.

“Opening schools under any of the three plans is complicated and challenging. We have utilized parent and staff surveys to help us develop plans for reopening,” he said. “We had intended to send out another survey for both parents and staff in late July or early August to better refine our plans. With the recent local spike in COVID cases, it seems likely that parent and staff inclinations may have changed which means that the plans that we have already developed will need to be modified.”

As of press time, Wednesday morning, North Carolina reported 89,484 cases, 1,552 deaths. In Macon County, 340 cases, (63 in Highlands) and one death. There are 369 tests pending. 

In fact, Gov. Cooper said even the plans he put in motion Tuesday depend on the status of cases moving forward – whether they level off or increase. “So please wear a mask for our children, if nothing else,” he said.

“We have been conducting careful, collaborative, painstaking work working with information and science and we know there will always be some risk with in-person learning,” said Cooper.

Since school starts in about a month, everyone has been anxious to know how “the plan” will work – teachers, parents and students.

“Yes, parents, teachers, and the community have been concerned about the upcoming school year,” said Baldwin. “Please be assured that I am deeply concerned about safely reopening our schools this fall. If we reopen the safety of our students and staff is paramount. We will need to remediate to help students who may have suffered from lost learning and engagement and since we are at 50% capacity with Plan B – which still includes five remote learning days – we must deliver instruction so that our students have the best opportunities possible.”

Baldwin said his central office and principals have met several times this summer to discuss reopening plans and strategies and they will continue to plan and prepare right up until August 17th. 

In preparation, The Jump Start program has been set up for 2 weeks this summer. The program has been limited by the legislation which provided the funding and it can only be used for K-4 students who were identified as in need of remediation on March 13, 2020. 

“We have also set aside some of the Jump Start money to identify those students showing the greatest need once school begins,” said Baldwin. “This is significant because while we know which students were behind on March 13th, we are unsure which students are significantly behind as a result of the school closing and summer break. We won’t know the students who suffered the most until school actually begins. We may utilize some of the Jump Start funding for after-school remediation, too, but it has to be spent by Dec. 31, 2020.”

Meanwhile, all over Macon County there are families either with unreliable internet or none at all and this is another obstacle the school system must clear since the state mandated there be five remote learning days this ’20-’21 school year regardless of the startup plan.

“We are reaching out to community centers, fire departments even churches to set up wireless hotspots for families,” said Baldwin. “The school system will also be providing a device to all students in grades 5th through 12th as well as a device to any student in grades K-4, who may not have one in the home,” said Baldwin.

The Advance Highlands Education Committee (AHEC) in Highlands has been working on that issue, too, submitting grants to get funds for Highlands School’s remaining tech needs primarily for middle and high school students as well, as iPads for middle school since their textbooks are pivoting to digital like in the high school. 

“These are critical for each student to have with the requirement of remote learning and they’ll be allowed to use them at home,” said AHEC board member Hilary Wilkes. “Many of our students do not have this technology at home and with many homes having multiple learners it’s important to have individual devices.”

Highlands School Principal Brian Jetter said they will be designing the school reopening around the guidelines in Plan B, but the real specifics will be coming as they address all the issues and design the protocols needed to maintain the structure of the school. 

Pictured at the top of the article is Highlands School.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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