Swain County School Board held an emergency meeting on Monday, Sept. 28 to hear updates on COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and plans on moving forward towards Plan A for K-5 students in the county. Following discussion, the board agreed to set Oct. 19 as the tentative date for implementation of a modified Plan A, where students will be returning to the classrooms for four days a week.
Alison Cochran, director of Swain County Health Department, presented data for COVID-19 tests and rates throughout the county as of Monday, Sept. 28. She reported the following: 4,610 tests have been administered, 37 tests are pending, there have been 149 positive tests since March. Currently, there are 8 active cases and 3 deceased.
According to Cochran, the overall rate of cases has fluctuated since July but has stayed in relatively low percentages, with a 3.2% positivity rate and a 2% case fatality rate.
Cochran also addressed Plan A for elementary students, which would allow for full-time attendance, stressing the need to continue social distancing if the district moves to Plan A for K-5. Gov. Roy Cooper announced earlier this month that school districts will be allowed to move to Plan A for the lower grades as early as Oct. 5, however, implementation presents challenges. Currently, students are either under Plan B, a rotating schedule where they are in class part-time or Plan C, where they are fully remote learning.
“Younger kids are not catching and transmitting COVID like older individuals are. With Plan A you do not have to social distance, but I highly recommend it,” she said. “If one student comes back positive, you’re looking at putting the entire classroom out. Social distancing, in my opinion, is key right now, as well as masks and enforcing that these safety precautions are followed. I would wait and not bring in Plan C at this time and if you decide, then get the A&B groups together for 4-6 weeks or so and also see how many positives we may (hopefully not!) end up with. You’ll have to go completely remote if you lose your staff.”
Superintendent Mark Sale reported that social distancing and the other measures the district is taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus is going well.
“We have been able to manage presumptive positives. We don’t, to my knowledge, have a lot of presumptive positives coming into the buildings,” he said.
He added that people who are staying out of the schools when they feel unwell are really helping the district.
The question throughout the community seems to be, what is going to happen with our schools and students? What is going to be implemented to get our students on Plan C caught up with other students on other plans?
First, Sale addressed concerns about students learning remotely falling behind.
“Our folks have worked really hard on keeping our students on Plan C up-to-date, and yet, they’re still struggling.”
He reported nearly half of the remote learning students are struggling to stay up-to-date, with nearly 400 “significantly off track.”
He emphasized the need to focus on bringing the students up to speed, and suggested the district add staff.
“We believe if we can bring another person into the high school to work four days a week, and also middle school, and two people per day two days a week after school and have folks dial in or be there person-to-person to provide additional support for all students county wide,” he said. “We will commit ourselves to providing our students and our teachers additional support during these times.”
Plan C students to
As the district look at moving forward with Plan A, he said students on Plan C will remain on that plan.
“At this time, we are not set up to serve entire schools at one time. Having more students in confined areas just opens the door for potential increases of cases,” he said. He also suggested the district remain on a four-day schedule for in-person classes so Wednesdays can be used for cleaning classrooms and for online tutoring.
“Another piece that needs to be thought about is, if we go to a 5 day school week, we won’t be able to deliver meals throughout the community, and we don’t want to lose the ability to be able to provide for our students,” he added, as those meals are being delivered on Wednesdays when the buses are not in use for in-person students.
The next step in moving toward Plan A, he said, is polling parents to see about the interest of returning, including those whose children are currently in the Plan C, or fully remote plan.
but attendance a concern
Katrina Turbyfill, co-director of School Improvement, shared the difficulties around attendance under the current conditions. She estimated about 10 percent of students are consecutively absent.
“Concerns are growing about students not completing work,” she said. “Some individuals feel as though moving towards truancy would be an appropriate next step. From what I have gathered, parents are trying to get their kids to work, but it is a double duty for parents and this is proving difficult.”
On a positive note, she said internet service is improving for students. There are now 300 hotspots for students who need it and fewer are reporting that they have to leave their homes for connection.
How to move to Plan A
With talks of moving toward Plan A, concerns were expressed Monday night. Among concerns are how long it would take to prepare the classrooms for an influx of students and how this will affect teachers and staff?
West Elementary Principal Vickie Davis said her teachers are ready for students to be in class all week.
“Kids are losing a lot of retention between the time in and out of classes,” she said.
Her school has details such as physical education and lunch worked out for Plan A, she said.
“It’s not like we have to go back to the drawing board,,” she said. “As long as we can get the social distancing figured out I think everyone can be comfortable.”
She did add, however, that teachers need time to adapt, and suggested a heads up of at least 2 weeks.
Sale suggested the district utilize the Teacher Work Day on Oct. 12 to overhaul classrooms to prepare for students to return to attending in-person four das a week. After some suggestions, it was agreed that the schools deserve more than just a day to prepare.
School board chairwoman Mellie Burns suggested that the revisions take place during the fast approaching quarter break.
The board unanimously decided to move forward with a “modified Plan A”, set to begin Oct. 19th, after quarter break for students.
Burns stressed understanding that this is a modified plan and that the message needs to be conveyed that “we aren’t going full force right away, and if we are able to wait until after quarter break, we can kind of see the pattern in other schools in surrounding areas, as they are returning earlier than we are here in Swain County.”
Sale added that with the pandemic, people should know the plans could change at any time.
“We will reiterate the cruciality of understanding that this modified plan is subject to change once it is in place,” he said. :This will depend on the decision of the superintendent as well as collaboration with the health department to keep an eye on the number of cases and if we see an increase in reports. We will ensure that masks and social distancing are mandatory, in order to keep our students and staff safe. I believe we can keep everyone safe, however, things can change at any time so we want to be prepared for that possibility.”
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 12 at 6 p.m.