More than 330,000 public school students in the Charlotte region will head back to school, or open their laptops at home, starting Monday after a summer of debate over how to teach during a pandemic.
The Carolinas have reported nearly 245,000 COVID-19 cases total since March and nearly 4,500 deaths, and no one is sure of the remaining path of the virus. Parents and teachers have been divided over whether returning to school is safe.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced last month that North Carolina’s schools could reopen with in-person learning, called Plan B, but with fewer students per class, and mandatory social distancing and other safety protocols such as temperature checks. Districts were also able to choose full remote learning, or Plan C.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recommended two options: a full return of face-to-face learning or a fully virtual option. McMaster advised the S.C. Department of Education to reject any plan that didn’t include a full face-to-face option.
Many districts in the Charlotte area chose elements of both. Others will be virtual only.
Leaders initially proposed a mix of the two approaches. The CMS board first voted to approve what they called “Plan B+ Remote,” which brought teachers and students back to school buildings for two weeks of rotational, socially distant in-person orientation. After, the district would transition to full remote instruction until the virus subsided to a point where leaders felt in-person instruction would be safe.
The district said the two-week orientation process was meant to give students and teachers a chance to form more meaningful connections, which would make remote learning more successful. But teachers and other school-based employees organized significant and vocal criticism of the plan.
They said that while they all wished to return to classrooms, it simply was not safe for workers or students to do so, as many school buildings with poor ventilation and outdated HVAC systems made it impossible to implement a number of safety measures.
The board later voted to reopen under Plan C, or full remote instruction, citing critical shortages among bus drivers, nurses and custodians that would make a safe reopening of buildings difficult.
CMS joins dozens of other districts in the state reopening under full remote instruction, meaning the majority of the state’s students will not begin the year in the classroom.
The district has formed a medical advisory board to establish metrics for when students will return to school. Families who enrolled in the district’s full remote academy option will remain at home, even if the district decides to bring students back to the classroom in some form this year. Roughly one-third of the district’s students chose the full-remote option, though CMS ultimately extended the deadline to enroll after concerns from parents and principals that the initial signup had been confusing.
The county’s school board voted last month to open the school year with full remote learning for its 33,000 students. The district plans to transition to a combination of in-person and remote learning if health conditions allow.
All-remote learning calls for daily “live” instruction and lesson videos Mondays through Thursdays, followed by independent practice, project completion and teacher office hours on Fridays.
“However, it will not look like the remote learning from the spring,” Superintendent Chris Lowder said in message to parents. “Our expectations for teaching and learning are higher, and we are better prepared to deliver instruction to our students.”
Each student will get a Chromebook, Lowder said, and the district will also continue free meals to students starting Monday.
The county’s Board of Education voted last month to open under the state’s Plan B option for its more than 31,000 students pre-kindergarten through high school. The system is among the 10 largest in the state.
Plan B includes two days of in-school and three days of virtual instruction each week. Parents still have the option of all-virtual learning for their children.
Plan B limits school building capacity to 50%. Daily temperature checks and other health screening are required. All students, faculty, staff and visitors are required to wear masks.
“The safety of our students and employees is a priority,” Jeffrey Booker, Gaston County Schools superintendent, said in an online message last month after the Board of Education vote.
“Our schools will follow the health guidance provided by state and local officials to ensure that the school environment is as safe as it can be.”
The system’s Board of Education approved both Plan B and Plan C, giving parents the choice.
With more than 20,000 students, Iredell-Statesville ranks among the 20 largest school systems in the state, and parents were divided, Superintendent Jeff James said during an Aug. 4 Statesville radio show appearance.
“We feel like we’re being the most flexible” for divided groups of parents, James said.
“We have both ends of the spectrum. We have polarization here. We have parents who want (their children) to be back in school full time and, of course, parents who have concerns that want to be virtual.”
The system’s 5,500 students will learn in-person, under Plan B, but parents may opt for virtual-only instruction.
“If a student is at higher risk, a parent may choose that their child learn under Plan C (Remote Learning),” school system officials said.
Students will be divided into four cohorts so staff can monitor student health and safety and provide flexible scheduling when necessary, according to the system’s website.
Open house occurred virtually over the past week, and reopening orientations/meet-the-teacher sessions are by appointment.
Mooresville Graded School District
The district’s 6,000 students will learn virtually, after the school board chose Plan C for the first nine weeks of the school year.
Long-term virtual learning is available through the district’s Online Academy website.
School district officials said they opted for Plan C because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community.
“If a staff member or student has been exposed to COVID-19, it would mean a 14 day quarantine making staffing difficult, as well as teaching and learning,” officials posted on the district website. “If a staff member or student were to test positive, an entire school would potentially need to be shut down creating an issue with continuity of learning for our students.”
Officials also concluded that “from bussing to classrooms, social distancing requirements of 6 feet at all times, as well as sanitation protocols, are logistically extremely difficult and without guarantee that a student or staff member will not contract COVID-19 and spread it to others.”
Union County Public Schools will use a hybrid of in-school and virtual learning.
Its 41,500 students will be divided into four cohorts that will rotate for face-to-face learning. Students from each cohort will study at school one day a week, Mondays through Thursdays, and remotely on other days. All students will study remotely on Fridays.
The district also offered a full-time remote option, Plan D, for grades 2-12, although the application period ended July 26.
Union County says it may allow more students into some schools where class sizes are small and health and safety aren’t compromised. Officials said they will continue to evaluate scheduling.
The district will open regional meal sites to serve students learning remotely. School buses will operate at a reduced capacity with one student per seat to allow for social distancing.
York (S.C) School District 1
The district of 5,200 students opens on Aug. 24 but will hold orientation sessions for K-8 students starting Monday.
Schools will operate in a hybrid mode, with students attending school for face-to-face instruction two days a week and working remotely 3 days a week. Students will have class, eat meals and receive educational support services in classrooms, according to the district’s website. The approach, the district’s plan states, will change if there’s “high spread” of COVID-19.
The district also offered a new “virtual academy” for K-12 students whose families opt not to return to the classroom.
“Unlike remote learning, which was implemented last spring in an emergency situation, students in the virtual academy will follow a schedule just like they would in a traditional brick and mortar school,” the district says.
“They will be able to see and hear teachers as appropriate, ask questions and gain real-time support and instruction, as well as complete independent and group assignments.”
More information is available at a frequently-asked questions page.
Fort Mill (S.C) Schools
School will start Aug. 31 for this district’s 16,000 students.
Elementary school students will return to class on alternate days for the first four weeks of school, then resume full face-to-face instruction on Sept. 28. Middle school and high school students will attend classes on alternate days to reduce class sizes.
The district also offered a full virtual option in which students will be assigned to a class or classes with teachers dedicated to that class and with other students from throughout the district.
Rock Hill (S.C.) Schools
School starts Sept. 8 for the district of 18,000 students.
The district will start school on an “A/B-day schedule,” according to the district’s reopening plan. Half of the schools’ students will receive in-person instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the rest on Wednesdays and Fridays. They will study independently on most other days.
It also offered a virtual learning academy for families who wanted to keep their children at home.
Clover (S.C.) School District
School starts Aug. 24 for the district’s 8,400 students, using a hybrid model that allows it to be more or less restrictive as health conditions allow, according to its reopening plan.
Elementary school students will be assigned to attend school on only one day of the first week, while middle school students will attend on alternate days.
Elementary students will attend class on alternate days for the following two weeks, Aug. 31 to Sept. 10, then be in class all five days of the week but remain in their home classrooms.
Middle school and high school students will study on campus two days a week, and three days remotely.