Amid a pandemic, Guilford County school officials debate how and when to open schools for the fall. 

The Guilford County school board decided on Tuesday evening to start with nine weeks of remote learning for all students for the 2020-21 school year. 

The decision expands on Superintendent Sharon Contreras’ earlier recommendation for five weeks of remote learning. The final vote took place after a long meeting that lasted more than five hours. Board members asked questions about the logistics of remote learning. The decision passed on a 6-3 vote, split along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against. 

“I’m revising my recommendation to open under Plan C for nine weeks and open pending review of public health data on October 20,” said Contreras at the beginning of the meeting. “Data is not going in the right direction in terms of public-health metrics, test-positivity rates.” 

Contreras also said the additional four weeks would allow for school administration and task forces to come up with the best option for in-person learning after Oct. 20, and might give them time to receive funding from the federal government to help provide increased pay for teachers and to hire additional staff.

A map of how other school districts in the state have decided for schooling this fall. (screenshot)

School board member Pat Tillman of District 3, who is up for re-election this fall, pushed back on the notion that the extra four weeks would yield any changes and improvements in already constructed scenarios for in-person re-entry to schools.  

“I don’t know that another four weeks is going to dramatically increase our decision-making,” Tillman said. 

He made a substitute motion to move forward with five weeks of online learning, which failed along party lines. 

Guilford County students will all start with remote learning on Aug. 17 and under the current plan will return to some form of in-person learning on Oct. 20. Forsyth County schools decided on July 17 to also start with nine weeks of remote learning starting on Aug. 17.  

A timeline of how the school board will decide its next steps. (GCS presentation screenshot)

What will in-person schooling look like? 

While the decision to start remote had always been decided, with the length of time being the key factor for Tuesday’s meeting, board members spent much of the meeting debating the details of four scenarios currently put forth by school officials on what in-person re-entry would look like. However, school board Chair Deena Hayes-Green, Contreras and administration staff reminded board members that the scenarios wouldn’t be voted on until Sept. 8 and there could be many changes before then. 

The four scenarios presented at the board meeting on Tuesday included: Scenario I in which K-8 grades would be in school full time and 9-12 would be remote; Scenario II where half of K-12 would attend in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and then the other half would attend on Thursdays and Fridays; Scenario III where K-5 is in school full time and half of 6-12 students attend school in person on alternating weeks; Scenario IV would have all grades attending school in-person to varying hours with K-5 going for full days, 6-8 for four hours, and 9-12 for three hours. 

Previously, the fourth option was not available, but Contreras said school officials added the scenario after many parents of high school students expressed concern about their kids not receiving any in-person instruction. 

During the board’s vote, board member Anita Sharpe of District 2 made an additional motion to go ahead and vote to approve scenario IV for the fall. 

“We have strung our parents along long enough,” she argued. “We need to go ahead and decide how we are going to move along, and we don’t have to wait until September.” 

The vote failed along party lines. 

With in-person learning, county officials also noted the need for extra space and buildings to maintain adequate social distancing for all students. A graphic in the school board presentation showed that if each student needs a 6-foot radius around their desk, the average classroom would be able to accommodate only 17 children for a total of 820 students per school. With a projected enrollment of 1,067 students per school for the fall, 247 additional seats in 15 additional classrooms would be needed for each school.

What social distancing might look like in the fall for in-person learning. (GCS presentation screenshot)

Whitney Oakley, the district’s chief academic officer, told the board that fewer than 10 elementary schools across the district do not have sufficient capacity to fit projected enrollment numbers. As a result, some students might need to be taught in classrooms at a neighboring school. 

School officials also said during the meeting that teachers, even during remote learning, will have access to their classrooms and desks should they need them to teach. Contreras also said school officials have been talking about whether some teachers might need to bring their own children with them to schools. 

“We don’t want any barriers to providing students with a great education,” Contreras said. 

Things the school board will consider when making a decision about returning to in-person learning. (GCS presentation screenshot)

What will remote and virtual learning look like, and what’s the difference? 

For the first nine weeks, all Guilford County students will participate in either remote or virtual learning. Remote learning is the option mandated by Gov. Roy Cooper for all school districts. In this option, students will be taught by their teachers from their home schools remotely. After the nine weeks, these students would move into some form of in-person learning. Those that prefer to learn virtually for the entire school year have the option of registering for a new virtual academy.

An example of what an average day may look like for a student during the remote learning period. (GCS presentation screenshot)

The virtual academies consist of brand-new schools where students must register and will be taught by specially designated teachers. The curriculums may also be different than the traditional remote learning. The cost for the virtual schools, for which registration is now open, is free and is available as an option to K-8 students, but not for high school students.  

The deadline for registering for the virtual academy is Sept. 15, and they will not be able to switch back to their regular, assigned school until the end of a semester. Contreras said the rule is needed to ensure that both the remote and virtual schools have adequate staffing, and so that teachers don’t have to switch back and forth at the whims of the students. 

High school students must also register by Sept. 15 to access remote learning for the remainder of the school year after Oct. 20, but it will be through their home school and not through the virtual academy. 

The virtual academies will be staffed by teachers who are at high risk for coronavirus infection, or those who volunteer, Oakley said during a press conference prior to the board meeting. 

Currently, almost 6,000 students have registered for either the K-8 virtual academy or the 9-12 online courses, according to the presentation. 

Oakley said continuing remote learning, not the virtual academy, for all students for the entire year is not possible because of staffing issues. 

“Staffing issues don’t allow for every school to offer a full remote and a face-to-face option,” Oakley said. “We can’t flip teachers back and forth.” 

Pre-K students will start remotely as well and continue through Sept. 7. Pre-K is run through the NC Department of Health and Human Services. 

Questions of access remain for many children 

Another hot topic during Tuesday’s meeting included questions about access and ease of use for students with limited access to technology, children who speak different languages and exceptional children. 

Board member Byron Gladden of District 7 repeatedly brought up the issue of access to technology and questions about ease of use to children for whom English is not a first language when learning remote. 

“What is the plan for sharing devices in one family?” Gladden asked. 

Contreras admitted that according to a district-wide survey that was sent out to parents, about 20 percent of homes don’t have enough technology for students and 17 percent don’t have reliable internet. 

Contreras said that, like in the spring, parents with barriers to access should reach out to their home schools. Angie Henry, the chief financial officer and chief operations officer for the district, said the goal is to have devices for all children by the first week of August. 

For a one-to-one ratio, the district would need to have 85,000 devices ready — one for every teacher, teacher’s assistant and student. Contreras said administrators have asked county commissioners to authorize participation in a lease-to-own program, which would have provided that necessary devices, but the request was turned down. 

Several board members also brought up the question of wi-fi and internet access for students. 

During the press conference, Oakley said that there are about 600 square miles of rural area in the district that have trouble getting adequate internet. She stated that the district is using hot-spot buses, which will be deployed to school parking lots where parents can bring students to do work. Oakley also said the district is collaborating with universities and faith-based organizations to create additional spaces for internet access. 

Contreras said students who speak a foreign language should be able to access everything they need through their home teacher, who would be an English language development teacher. It was also clarified that Canvas, the online program used to teach remotely, has 34 different language options. The presentation also noted that a call center with the seven most-spoken languages will continue through the remote-learning period, and translated materials for parent support would be provided during remote learning. 

Officials agreed it’s more difficult to teach students with exceptional learning qualities through remote learning. 

“How can we assist our most vulnerable students?” asked board member Dianne Bellamy-Small of District 1. 

The presentation outlined ways in which school staff would work more closely with exceptional children, such as case managers creating individualized education plans, teachers establishing small check-ins or therapy sessions through appointments.  

“We’re going to do the best we can,” said Jill Wilson, the school board attorney. “We’re going to look at every child individually. It will be difficult at times to access some of the services that we’d like to deliver in person; that’s a challenge for us and the country. It is not business as usual in any respect.” 

What a teacher and parent has to say 

Jamie Yi is a Guilford County schools exceptional-learning teacher and a parent of two boys, one a rising third-grader and the other a first-grader. She said that she’s happy with the board’s decision to start with nine weeks of remote learning but that she still has questions.

Jamie Yi (second from left) with her family. Yi is a GCS teacher and parent to two GCS kids. (courtesy photo)

“I definitely appreciate our superintendent’s leadership to let us start this year with nine weeks of remote instruction last night,” she said in a Facebook message on Wednesday. 

She said that she watched the meting but that she didn’t pay much attention to the different scenarios for in-person teaching because she knows that circumstances and details will likely change before the Sept. 8 meeting. One thing, Yi said, is for sure: “Whatever scenario is chosen, one thing I know is that GCS needs to be fully funded to implement that safely,” she said. 

Yi is a member of the Guilford County Association of Educators. Yi said the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated and revealed the many problems that existed already within the public school system. 

“We don’t have windows,” said Yi, who teaches at Southeast Middle School. “We already struggle with HVAC. My room has never had an appropriate temperature. If it’s summer, it’s way too hot or too cold. In the winter it’s way too hot and I know that this coronavirus definitely has something to do with ventilation. My friend’s son is going to a private school. They recently changed the ventilation system in the entire building to allow outside air to come in. It was honestly really frustrating to hear that.” 

Yi is also concerned about what remote learning will look like for her exceptional-learning students. In the spring, she led remote instruction but academics ended up falling to the wayside, and addressing the students’ anxieties became the priority. 

“They learn differently, and they need different support,” she said. “Some of my students have behavior issues. Some of them have sensory-processing issues. One of my students couldn’t access their online work.” 

And even if they return to in-person instruction, Yi fears the virus will pose increased risk for some her students. 

“I’m really worried about their safety,” she said. “It’s about understanding social cues and understanding personal space.” 

Yi laments the fact that her school doesn’t have a nurse on staff and said that she thinks the probability that someone will get infected is pretty high. 

“I’m pretty sure it won’t take a long time to be infected,” she said. “It’s going to be a hot mess.” 

To adequately address the heightened needs of students during the pandemic, Yi said parents and the public need to know how underfunded the schools have been for years. 

“That is one of the major things,” she said. “It’s not just about we don’t want to go back because we don’t want to die. If we had a brand-new building with a new HVAC with less than 10 kids in each classroom and a nurse, then we could see a possibility of face to face, but this pandemic exposed the whole public school issues that we’ve ignored for the past decade. We need their support to fully fund public schools so we can return after this settles down.” 

To learn more about Guilford County School’s plan for the fall visit here

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