CHARLOTTE – In mid-March, schools across the country closed their doors as part of the nationwide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, pushing families into a lengthy period of emergency remote learning that continued through the end of the school year. Four months later, rising daily case counts and continued prohibitions on large gatherings have left students and teachers asking a critical question: what does all this mean for school in the fall?
Governor Cooper provided some answers in a press conference held on July 14. The Governor cleared North Carolina schools to open for in-person instruction under an “updated Plan B,” a modified version of a plan released earlier in the summer that would combine in-person and remote instruction.
NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen called the plan a “balanced, flexible approach which allows for in-person instruction as long as key safety requirements are in place.” Key requirements measures of the updated plan include:
- Face coverings for all teachers and students in grades K-12
- Limiting the total number of students, staff, and visitors within school buildings to ensure 6 feet of distance can be maintained between individuals
- Symptom screening, including temperature checks
- A process and dedicated space for people who are ill to isolate as well as transportation plans for ill students
- Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces in the school and transportation vehicles regularly
- Frequent hand washing throughout the school day; hand sanitizer at entrances and in every classroom
- Discontinuing activities that bring together large groups
- Limiting nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups
- Discontinuing use of self-service food or beverage distribution
Cooper’s announcement paves the way for schools across the state to open their doors to students this fall, but it also allows for individual school districts to choose a more conservative approach. Districts may choose to operate under Plan C – remote learning only – and it is suggested that schools allow families in districts where in-person instruction is offered to choose all-remote learning if they feel it better suits the needs of their family.
On Wednesday, July 15, Mecklenburg County’s Board of Education held an emergency meeting to decide how Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools would proceed for the fall. After nearly six hours of deliberation, the Board of Education voted on what they have termed “Plan B Plus Remote.” For the first two weeks of school, students will be separated into three groups that will attend school for three consecutive days each. This short period of in-person instruction will be an “onboarding period” where students meet their teachers and peers and prepare for remote learning. Congruent with the Governor’s announcement, face coverings will be required for all students and staff. Additionally, CMS plans to offer a full remote-learning option for families who do not wish to send their children to school during the pandemic.
The decision was met with mixed reactions from families and teachers. “I may be a minority, but I agree with their decision as it will allow teachers and building employees to continue working without added risk to their health,” says mom of four Barbie Tallent. Even before Wednesday’s decision, Tallent was leaning toward choosing all-remote learning for her children, expressing the view that those who can educate their children from home should in order to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.
While she’s content with the decision for her own family, Tallent fears a move to all-remote learning neglects the needs of some of the county’s highest-risk students, like those who are food insecure, those who rely on schools as a safe haven from an abusive home, and those with significant learning disabilities. “I understand those are issues more for the local government and Child Protective Services to deal with,” continues Tallent, “but schools helped with identifying at-risk kids to receive help. Who helps them now?”
Tallent is comfortable sending her children to school in-person for their assigned days so they can start to develop a relationship with their teacher, but she hopes remote learning will look different in the fall than it did in the spring. “I wasn’t happy with it, but I understand that it was a last-minute program,” says Tallent, who hopes schools will be more prepared for distance learning in the fall. “I hope it is more like a virtual classroom with a teacher talking to the camera, but not a live video, so we can attend when it fits our schedule.”
Other parents plan to take advantage of the fully remote option that is being offered. “As long as the cases of COVID-19 are still high, we would do remote learning,” says Jinna Bryant, whose daughter will begin Kindergarten this year at Lebanon Road Elementary. Exposure is Bryant’s main concern, but she also fears that forcing her daughter to wear a mask daily and distance from her peers at school will affect her mentally. Ultimately, Bryant is choosing to forego the social interaction of school in favor of consistency. “She needs a set schedule,” says Bryant. “She doesn’t do well with her life being changed a lot. It causes her anxiety, and then she gets really sad and frustrated!”
Like Tallent, Bryant wonders what remote learning will look like, especially for a kindergartener. While she hopes remote learning involves a significant amount of contact with her daughter’s teachers and peers through video lessons, she worries about keeping her daughter on task and how much of the teaching she may have to take on.
The uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year has pushed some parents like Sunshine to reconsider their approach to school altogether. Mom to a rising kindergartener, Sunshine was already hesitant to place her child in a traditional kindergarten classroom, where she feared a lack of opportunities to move would lead to behavioral problems.
Hearing about the ways classrooms would need to change this fall only exacerbated Sunshine’s worries. “My main thing is the social distancing,” she says. “I completely understand that it is necessary for some situations, but overall, it will not be good for him mentally. ‘No large groups’ leads me to believe that even the minimal playground time they get in a normal year would be hindered even more. Overall it’s his mental health that I am afraid of being affected by the constant ‘stay away, don’t touch that, wash your hands, use this hand sanitizer, wear a mask.’”
Always curious about homeschooling, the current educational climate gave Sunshine the push she needed to formally pursue it. “I feel homeschooling will give us more flexibility and a better mental health outcome than always being stressed about in-person schooling and when he would have to do remote learning,” she says.
Mecklenburg County’s plan to be fully remote beginning in week three prioritizes the safety of students and staff, but it’s still a difficult pill to swallow for many working families, who once again face the seemingly insurmountable problem of supervising and educating their children while also working.
“As a working parent, it’s challenging,” says teacher and single mom of two Leanne Thurman. Thurman’s rising first-grader attends school at the private school where Thurman teaches, but she’s struggling to cope with the reality remote learning for her rising ninth-grader. “Even though she is in high school, she cannot stay home unsupervised during the day due to learning and developmental needs,” continues Thurman. “I am not sure working from home will be an option for me, as my school is more likely to be in person if we can manage it. Since it’s an independent school, it does not have to do the same thing as CMS. However, I don’t know what our schedule will look like either. So my biggest challenge is going to be finding daytime supervision for a child who is too old for daycare in a situation where even after-school programs for older youth may be unavailable or limited. And as a single parent, I have to work; mine is the only source of income.”
Despite the difficulties she’s sure to encounter, Thurman doesn’t fault CMS for making the call to go mostly remote. “It’s honestly just a crappy situation for everyone,” she admits. “I think on the one hand that school is very important, and if we can go back safely in some capacity, we should. Daycares and summer camps have been running. But we also have a lot of medically vulnerable teachers and students. Is it worth the risk? And there is no way a blended schedule can work for everyone. If all kids go back, we risk covid increases. A hybrid system messes with working parents and may be too much transition back and forth for some kids, especially younger students, to handle. All remote still mess with working families, but at least then people have consistency, and can co-op if necessary. But there is no good solution.”
“This is a difficult time for families with hard choices on every side,” Cooper admitted at the press conference. “I am committed to working together to ensure our students and educators are as safe as possible and that children have opportunities to learn in a way that is best for them and their families.”
The decisions of this week paved the way for a new school year, but exactly what it will look like remains to be seen. CMS is expected to communicate additional details about how Plan B Plus Remote will work in the coming days and weeks. Parents should also expect to receive information from their child’s school. The CMS Call Center is prepared to address your questions, concerns, and comments at (980)-343-3001.