BEAUFORT — The Carteret County Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to allow all middle and high school students to return to classrooms four days a week, with Wednesdays continuing to be remote learning days.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 220, which allows the move, Thursday. The Senate passed the measure Wednesday, with the House passing it Thursday.
After the governor’s announcement about the bill Wednesday, the county school board, which has been pushing to return all students full-time to classrooms, quickly called an emergency meeting for Thursday to approve a plan to transition students back.
Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson said, “We are two days away from the one-year anniversary of when Gov. Cooper signed the executive order to close schools for two weeks, and here we are today.”
Dr. Jackson recommended high school students return to classrooms under Plan A Monday, March 22, with middle school students starting Monday, March 29.
Parents will continue to have the option to have their children attend remotely.
SB 220 allows school districts to either adhere to Plan B, which has students separated by at least 6 feet and in-person instruction limited to a couple days of week due to space constrictions, or move to five days a week, like county elementary schools are already doing under Plan A. County middle and high school students have been attending under Plan B.
The governor also retains the option to require districts to return to a hybrid or virtual plan if he feels it’s necessary.
Dr. Jackson said he wants to keep Wednesdays as a remote learning day under Plan A because many middle and high school teachers instruct in-person and remotely.
“This will allow teachers who teach face-to-face and virtually to focus on their virtual teaching,” he said.
One big difference under Dr. Jackson’s plan is there will no longer be a 6-foot minimal distance in middle and high school classrooms.
“We will social distance as much as possible,” Dr. Jackson said.
Another difference is there will be no required physical distancing limit on school buses.
“We will try to social distance as much as possible, but we may have two or three students per seat depending on the situation,” he said.
Another part of Dr. Jackson’s recommendation is to temporarily suspend use of a seven-day quarantine option for non-symptomatic, close COVID-19 contacts. There will continue to be 10-day quarantine and 14-day quarantine options, depending on the situation.
Dr. Jackson said school nurses requested suspension of the seven-day option because they expect an increased workload in testing and contact tracing with more students in classrooms at the same time. He added that the school system is attempting to hire an additional contract nurse to assist with the anticipated increased workload.
Under Plan A, there will continue to be wellness checks, required face coverings for students and staff, hand sanitizer will be available and there will be ongoing disinfection of high-touch areas. There will be social distancing in common areas.
In addition, there will continue to be wellness checks of students prior to being seated on school buses and face coverings will be required on buses.
As required by the bill, the school district must first submit its plan to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. It must also agree to participate in ABC Collaborative, a data monitoring initiative.
Dr. Jackson said, so far, about 200 school system employees have had their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with 320 employees scheduled to receive their first dose Friday during a clinic for school personnel at Kmart in Morehead City. Additional employees have gone to other sites for vaccines, as well.
The superintendent said his staff would begin contacting parents Thursday about the changes. He is also asking that parents let school staff know as soon as possible if their student will attend in person or remotely.
“We need to know how to plan,” he said, adding that parents will have the option to switch their student to a different plan if they feel it’s needed.
BOE member Katie Statler praised Dr. Jackson and staff for their hard work and made the motion to approve his recommendation, with John McLean seconding.
Board member Travis Day asked if he could amend the motion to allow high schools and middle schools that wanted to go back ahead of March 22 and March 29, respectively, to be able to do so. He also asked if the district could continue with the seven-day quarantine option.
Mr. McLean said he wanted to side with school staff and nurses and go with the plan Dr. Jackson recommended.
“The simple fact is the nurses have worked on this and they are the professionals,” he said. “They are the boots on the ground.”
Board member Brittany Wheatly asked if Dr. Jackson had considered offering a virtual academy for students who attend remotely to take the load off teachers who are teaching in person and virtually. Dr. Jackson said he and his staff are discussing the feasibility of having a virtual academy next school year, but he didn’t feel there would be enough time to institute one this school year.
The board asked Dr. Jackson update them on the reopening at the board’s Tuesday, April 13 meeting.
“I have a feeling there are a lot of parents and students cheering right now,” Dr. Jackson.
SB 220 comes nearly two weeks after the governor vetoed a GOP bill that would have mandated all districts reopen with at least partial in-person instruction.
Gov. Cooper complained that measure would have kept state and local officials from pulling back classroom teaching should there be unexpected coronavirus outbreaks. Republicans countered that students were suffering academic and behavioral problems in districts that had not returned to in-person learning, as well as those attending under the combination of virtual and in-person learning.
In response to the bill, the N.C. Association of Educators expressed concern in a press statement Wednesday.
“NCAE continues to stress the need for 6 feet of social distancing as recommended by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in areas of high community spread to protect students and educators,” the statement reads. “This agreement between the governor and leaders in the state legislature will needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators, and staff into school buildings that do not comply with CDC guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians.”
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:26 a.m. Friday, March 12, 2021, to include the latest news.