Swain County Schools announced Monday night the district would go to Plan C, full remote learning, effective immediately for two weeks, due to a rising number of teachers and staff people either testing positive or being close contacts and having to isolate for COVID-19. In-person classes are tentatively set to resume on Monday, Jan. 25.
It was after the school day and just hours before the school board meeting Monday when Superintendent Mark Sale took a call from an employee who had tested positive for COVID-19. With the number of staff people out due to the virus on the rise, this last call led him to act and make a recommendation to pause in-person instruction for two week.
“The suspicion is it may have happened at school, and that person might also have pneumonia and is looking for a hospital to go to. That gets my attention,” Sale said during the regular school board meeting. “This is what we’re asking our staff to step into all the time right now, and it came to the conclusion for me today that in good conscience, I struggle to ask our staff to do that without giving them some time to recover and get our numbers down some.”
Word of the recommendation spread quickly, with some parents upset over the news. Swain County Health Director Alison Cochran said, “I was at home this evening, and all of a sudden my phone was blowing up, ‘Why was I closing schools?’ I got in the car and came down here.”
She hadn’t realized in discussion with Sale earlier that he planned to make the recommendation to stop in-person instruction immediately. She said his reasoning is valid, but stressed it’s the school system’s decision not a directive from her office.
“With our Covid numbers on the county end, we’re still good. Our numbers are high, we have lots of contacts, that’s very true, but they’re just as high as they were weeks ago,” She said. “But, if you are having problems with staff or a multitude of students out, then I understand you going with Plan C remote, but I want that to be clear that it’s not because the health department said you have to.”
School board chairman Gerald McKinney said, yes, the “primary reason we were looking at this was staff. We have more staff members who are sick—one seriously.”
The board also supported the decision, acknowledging it’s not an easy one to make.
Board member Kim Carpenter said that knowing the goal of the Superintendent has always been to have students learning in the classroom, when he recommends halting in person instruction, she knows it’s serious.
The discussion then went to what will happen in regard to sports? Basketball just began its season and cross country is now heading into regionals.
Cochran said it’s been her opinion since the beginning, if schools must go to remote learning, sports, especially contact ones, should also be put on hold to prevent the spread of the virus.
Board member Cody White spoke to his concerns, saying while sports are voluntary, if it leads to an outbreak of the virus and prolongs schools being closed, that impacts others.
“I don’t want sports to play a factor as the reason why we can no longer go back to in person,” he said.
Tommy Dills, district human resources director, urged the board to allow sports to continue. Athletes will continue to be tested and screened, and action can be taken if there is a positive test result, he said.
“This is a microcosm, a smaller piece and more manageable,” Dills said.
The board agreed to speak with coaches to get input on sports continuing.
“We’ll wait on the athletic department to hear from coaches with the understanding again if one tests positive, we are prepared to shut that down, that particular team,” McKinney said. “Our main concern now is staff, and kids too, but mainly staff. It’s getting less and less, and we can’t run a school without them.”
It was noted that tutoring for students will continue virtually and school buses will deliver meals daily to the students.
According to posts shared by the school district on social media, 58 staff members were out since school started back for the semester Jan. 5. Students were also out due to the virus, with more than 10 at every school either because of positive test results or because they were close contacts.