With NC setting new highs in coronavirus infections, some school systems are testing out in-person classrooms.
COVID-19 cases in NC might still be on the rise, but thousands of elementary school students across the state have been gradually returning to the classroom over the past month.
For parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and students in counties that opted for the hybrid “Plan B” model, the transition back to in-person learning has brought both anxiety and excitement.
During a recent event to bring attention to the opening of middle schools, Wake County Public School System Superintendent Cathy Moore described the staff as “100% anxious and 100% committed” as they entered the third week of in-person instruction during the week of Nov. 9.
Wake County schools alone have reported 51 COVID-19 cases since they began reopening on Oct. 26, according to the WCPSS website.
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Aside from these cases, parents and teachers say the transition back to the classroom has gone surprisingly well.
“Before they all came back in and we were getting prepared, I was really nervous with all the new procedures and them being out of school since March,” said Hannah Dunklin, who teaches third grade at Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex. “But it’s like they came back from March and they know exactly what to do.”
Wake County and other counties that selected Plan B have divided students who opted to return in-person into three separate cohorts, with each cohort coming in for one week and taking remote classes for the other two weeks, before all three groups come back for full time, in-person classes.
Dunklin had 13 students in her class for the first week, but will have 20 students when they all come back at the same time on Nov. 16. She admitted she is concerned about properly social distancing at that point.
Kristin Beller, president of the Wake County North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), echoed the sentiment that students have been doing a great job following “the three Ws”— Wear, wait, and wash. At a Wake NCAE meeting at the end of October, educators reported that students have been trying to make sure they’re doing the right thing and upholding their part in keeping everybody safe.
However, Beller and many other educators maintain that the safest option right now is Plan C, or all-remote learning. Some NC counties such as Durham have opted for that route. Parents across the state, regardless of the plan their county has selected, have the option to keep their child enrolled in the North Carolina Virtual Academy for the rest of the year.
“Our priority is giving kids a learning environment that is safe and provides meaningful learning experiences, and because of that, we firmly believe that remote learning is the safest and least disruptive to students,” Beller said.
So far, Beller said the main things teachers of in-person classes have been struggling with boils down to logistics and the “nitty gritty, day-to-day details.”
For example, if a student starts coughing in the middle of class and they’re sent to the school’s COVID center, someone has to make the call whether to notify the child’s parents.
“You don’t want to call the parent every time a child has a sniffle and ask them to take them home,” Beller said. “But there is a judgement call that has to be made, and a person who is not a medical professional is charged with making that judgement call.”
Parents of children who have already returned to school or will soon return say they’re taking a calculated risk and hoping for the best.
“We’ll take it day-by-day like everyone else is, but I think what he’s lost, and what all of our kids have lost, as far as the socialization, emotional, and peer support—we don’t know yet what the toll is going to be on our kids,” said April Giancola, the parent of a 5th grader at Partnership Elementary School in Raleigh.
That support is perhaps even more important for students in special education programs who might struggle with virtual learning or abrupt changes.
Susan Book is the parent of a 5th grader on the autism spectrum and she has opted to send him to school in-person for half days, with virtual learning for the second part of the day, as a way to ease him into a new routine. Book also wanted to bring him home for lunches to avoid the potential exposure of a school lunchroom.
“Most of our kids are eating in a lunchroom and that’s scary— I personally don’t go to restaurants,” she said.
Overall, though, Book says the transition has been going well, in large part because her school principal has been flexible with the needs of parents and children.
Both Book and Giancola say they’ve been impressed with the efforts teachers and staff have made in order to facilitate a transition back to the classroom, and they acknowledge that administrators and officials have been faced with an impossible choice.
“I think [the county] is between a rock and a hard place—those rocks and hard places being us parents,” Book said. “Because you have a lot of parents trying to get their kids back and you have a lot of parents who are understandably concerned about safety.”
She added that these decisions also raise an equity issue, because the pandemic has not affected all parents and students equally. Book feels fortunate that she’s in a position to stay home and work with her son one-on-one, but she recognizes that not everyone can.
“I am extremely mindful of people who do not have the same privileges that I do when it comes to dealing with my son’s disability,” Book said.