With an abundance of caution, Swain County Board of Education in an unanimous decision Monday night voted for its elementary school students to return to in-person instruction four days a week beginning on Monday, Feb. 22.
The move follows an announcement made by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper last week that essentially lifted the six-foot social distancing requirements for K-5. Republican legislators began a push for all students to return to in-person instruction prior to the announcement.
“If we have the ability to pull the trigger we need the kids back in school,” said board member Cody White.
Board member Mitchell Carson asked about the practicality of returning, suggesting a two-week window both for schools to prepare and for parents to decide an alternate route if they don’t want their students in classrooms with more students four days a week. Remote learning is still being made available for those who choose.
West Elementary Principal Vicki Davis confirmed it would take some time to get classrooms ready for additional students, since the school has been operating with reduced class sizes on the rotation schedule so far this year.
“All our furniture is in storage so we would need some time just to reset classrooms and get them ready to go,” she said.
Board member Travis Hyatt noted the delay could help teachers who are hesitant.
“It lets everybody prepare,” he said. “Also, those teachers that are not comfortable in next couple weeks we can maybe figure out why and how we can help them.”
Board member Kim Carpenter asked if it was possible for the staff to keep social distancing, since they have a higher risk of infection.
“They’ll practice that every way they can,” said Superintendent Mark Sale.
The discussion started with Sale sharing some of the difficulties surrounding a return to four days a week, such as the distancing requirements for buses.
He also noted that the change is only for elementary schools.
Swain County Health Department Director Alison Cochran was on hand to present current numbers of COVID-19 and vaccinations. As of Monday, there have been 16,344 total tests and 1,433 positive results, but the active number of cases has gone down considerably. “Currently, we have 23 active cases and 15 deaths,” she said. “In past month, we had over 3,100 tests in Swain County 333 were positive and unfortunately there were six new deaths in the past month. On Jan. 7, there were 132 active cases; so it’s dropped tremendously.”
Her department is administering vaccines steadily with about 100 doses a week being made available from the state. Through Monday, she reported there have been 1,340 to receive their second dose and 205 second doses. “There will be an additional 400 plus Thursday and Friday of this week for people 65 and older,” she said.
In Swain County, the vaccine was also made available to teachers aged 42 and older with those 95 people who opted to get the vaccine scheduled for their second dose on Feb. 19.
School Board Chairman Gerald McKinney asked, “If we have our teachers vaccinated then does it work a little better as far as teacher comfort?”
Sale shared some results from a survey the district conducted the previous Friday with 46% of the staff reporting they were very comfortable with returning and about 13% reporting they were uncomfortable.
As far as staff availability, Sale reported the district was about at 97% of its instructional staff, with very few out for Covid-19 reasons.
In other decisions, the board unanimously approved:
the NCSTAR plan for West Elementary School
approved the minutes and the personnel as presented
and agreed to begin the process of listing property in Alarka behind the old Alarka school.