By Shaun Adams
During the Swain County Board of Education meeting on Monday, Aug. 3, Chairwoman Mellie Burns read the following statement.
“Children are best served when they are in our buildings, but we are in the middle of a pandemic, so it makes it very difficult, and I want everyone who is listening or might watch this at some point to understand that these decisions are not being made lightly.”
This statement was in response to concerns heard from some staff members over the plan to reopen and have in-person classes this fall despite a continued increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county, state and nation. Burns said the board has received many letters from staff in support of Plan B, but “other letters have voiced their concern over the Plan B part of our reopening plans.”
Thirty-one staff members of the Swain County School District endorsed one opposition letter. Still, only 26 signed their names, Burns noted, and five chose to remain anonymous. She didn’t put much weight on those who didn’t sign their names.
“I am just going to be blunt and say absent a survey that is being sent out with complete anonymity guaranteed; if a letter is being crafted and sent to recipients, I don’t hold any value for anonymous,” Burns said.
Daniel Gibson addressed the school board during public comment about his concerns about remote learning. He asked how long they the schools will operate under Plan B and Plan C.
“We don’t know a time frame,” Burns responded.
Swain County Health Department Director Alison Cochran presented a COVID-19 update. The national numbers are “roughly 53 million tests given, and 5 million of those are positive, and there have been 154,002 deaths,” she reported Monday.
North Carolina has roughly 1.8 million completed tests, with 126,532 confirmed cases and 1,982 deaths. The case fatality rate in North Carolina is 1.5 percent.
As of Monday, Swain County has had 106 positive cases of COVID-19. Broken down by age group, there have been 14 cases in people in the 0-17 age group. In the 18-24 group, there have been 13 positives; and 44 people have tested positive in the age group 25-49. The 50-65 age group has had 21 people total test positive, 11 positives in the 65-74 group, and three positive cases in people 75 and older.
“The greatest amount is from the 25 to 49-year-olds,” Cochran pointed out.
She also gave data for the percentage of positive tests for the surrounding counties: Graham 2.4%, Jackson 4.7%, which included 28 people in the 0-17 age group, Macon 8.1 % and Alison stated possible reasons for the differences. “It has to some with long term care settings, camps, different populations, different grouping, church things of that nature.”
Board member Kim Carpenter asked how masks might play a role.
“That is a good question, I’ve not seen any data on that because whether you are wearing a mask or not if you are a contact then you are notified and you are asked to either test or at least quarantine at home and they have not figured that in as a factor in the contact tracing.”
In response to another question from Carpenter, Cochran said there have not been any significant changes since she last reported to the board, no spikes, outbreaks, or clusters in the county.
Board’s attorney Chris Campbell discussed a mask requirement issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Students must wear facemasks from the time they get on the bus until they get home with some breaks given. He said there are no minimum or maximum number of breaks. Face shields are only permissible for legitimate medical reasons and there needs to be a documented reason for wearing them, he said.
Face shields have come under some scrutiny as to their effectiveness against the spread of COVID-19.
“The Department of Health and Human Services is very worried that it may protect the wearer to some degree, but there is no good evidence that it protects other people from the spread of transmission of the disease.”
Board member Lambert Wilson asked Swain Superintendent Mark Sale if the school system is providing masks for the students.
Sale said students have been provided with five face coverings and added extra masks will be available in case a student forgets or needs a new mask for another reason during the school day.
Plan B vs. Plan C
Swain Public Information Officer Toby Burrell provided the board with the percentages of students who are going to take Plan B or Plan C for each school, with most students opting for some in-class instruction.
At East Elementary 70% are going with Plan B, and 30% are with Plan C. At West Elementary 63% are going with Plan B and 34% are in Plan C. At the Middle School it is 66.19% Plan B, Plan C 26.2% and 7.19 % has not responded as the school has not been able to get in touch with them. The high school is around 80% for Plan B and 20% for Plan C.
The board granted a leave of absence to Madeline Wyke for the 2020-2021 school year. The accepted the resignations of Rob Crawford, a mechanic at the bus garage, and Jason Sawyer, a custodian at Swain High School. The board also accepted the resignation-retirement of Fine Arts Director Rachel Lackey. The board hired Shawn McCarthy as a varsity football coach. Chandi Gilbertson was hired a full-time occupational therapy assistant, and Deanna Booth and Sally Butler were hired as teachers for the sixth-grade virtual leadership camp.
Also on Monday night, the board went into closed session for personnel and matters covered by the attorney-client privilege. After 25 minutes remaining in closed session, the board came and did not discuss or act on anything discussed in closed session at that time.
In other actions, a $99,000 contract was approved with Edmentum for online learning for the 2020-2021 year.
At the advice of the attorney Campbell, the board repealed existing policy 1710 and 1720, and updated policy 1730, 4040, 4341 and 4340 and unanimously adopted new policies 1710, 1720,1725,1726, 4329, 7232 in addition to regulation 1725 which pertain to Title IX.
The board of education will meet again at 6 p.m. on Aug. 31 for a special to discuss updates on how things are going after school starts back and for an update on COVID-19.