Carteret County schools, and schools across the state, are facing an immense challenge as they prepare to accept students in next 60 days with new requirements mandated by Governor Cooper and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). But this situation can be an opportunity for major changes that will enhance education for the future.
This past Monday Governor Cooper, DHHS and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson released a 120-page Health Toolkit describing a “comprehensive set of baseline health practices” for K-12 public schools. The purpose is to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19 infection for students and school staff and subsequently for the families of the school children.
Carteret County Schools will open August 11 for teachers and seven days later for students. This advanced school calendar allows only 60 days for schools to initiate both program and infrastructure changes to meet the new state mandates.
Included in the detailed toolkit are instructions that schools are REQUIRED to install hand sanitizers (with at least 60 per cent alcohol which may be a conflict with fire codes) at every building entrance and exit, in cafeterias, and in every classroom. Classrooms will be redesigned to expand spaces between desks, plexiglass shields will be added to certain areas of the school and storage lockers must be provided to “keep students’ personal items separated.”
In addition to the purchase of cleaning supplies, the school staff will be required to conduct daily temperature screenings for all people entering school facilities or boarding school buses. Students will be instructed in handwashing with soap and water and will be restricted in their movements and activities to assure proper spatial distancing. Adding to the already packed day for the teachers and staff, high touch areas will have to be sanitized on a regular basis to include buses.
All of these mandates and many more will add hours for work for teachers and school staff and added cost for the schools. All of this requires planning and with only 60 days remaining before classes start there is no time to waste. But there is time to begin thinking about how education can be delivered and how schooling can be altered for what is going to be a long recovery and most likely a permanent shift in the educational system.
Parents and teachers are appropriately concerned for the wellbeing of the students and in fact, their own safety as well. These concerns open the door to consideration of alternatives by the school board. Remote learning, computer delivered instruction, must be added as a permanent opportunity for education so that students who are unable or are disinclined to participate in the traditional classroom can continue their education. This will require the school administration and the board of education to address access to the needed technology and teachers trained in working in that environment. Columbus and Cumberland counties have successfully initiated plans for remote learning, leading the way for other school systems to consider.
Alternative classroom environments need to be considered as well. Already the county school system is using Carteret Community College for the Marine and Science Technology program, MaST, which should continue. The recent decision by the county school board to begin closing this school because of added costs should be reversed. The financial expense for this program will pale in comparison to the increased costs schools face meeting the governor’s mandates. Continuing this program will reduce student populations in the traditional school facilities thereby reducing cost for equipment and time.
This is just one of many alternative facilities the school system should consider. The county is already set on a course for a $42 million bond referendum with an open agenda as to how the money will be used. The current circumstances are pointing at the direction the school board should take, a direction of innovation.
The StrongSchoolsNC Public Heath Tookit (K-12) will be reviewed sometime in July for possible revision and clarification. But by that time schools will have only a few days before opening, Aug. 5 for teachers and Aug. 11 for students, to make any adjustments. It has always been said that “necessity is the mother of invention” but in this case, for the Carteret County School system, necessity is the opportunity for innovation.