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As school year inches closer, no perfect model to resume classes

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The school system’s modus operandi for the coming year, dubbed Plan B by the state, is not financially viable for the long-term, says Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Moody.

The district’s adaptation of the model, which requires student density to be cut in half in schools and other expensive measures, puts students in schools two days a week in two groups.

Plan B means buses which would normally transport 72 elementary school students can now only carry 24 at once, and the district has needed to contract more custodial staff to perform enhanced cleaning and health room monitors. It has reserved a room in every school for observation, placed air scrubbers in every building and paid for additional personal protective equipment, thermometers and hand sanitizer.

RSS received several million in CARES Act funding to help offset additional costs, but it will not last forever.

“We will not be able to maintain plan B financially for a long period of time,” Moody said.

Moody said it is uncertain how long. And there are some variables. If the district has to run additional bus routes, for instance, that could increase its expenses. To help with that, RSS has asked parents to find alternate ways to get their students to school if possible.

She described plan B as the most expensive and challenging option between a full reopening of schools and virtual learning. The hope is for the district to be able to safely reopen schools as soon as possible, Moody said. But that will likely require an improvements in COVID-19 cases in the state.

Associate Superintendent of Resources Carol Herndon said the cost associated with safety measures is a funding challenge, but it is not guess work.

“We do occasionally have to have conversations within our district because we have to fund this. So maybe this is the year to not fund that,” Herndon said. “If we’re not able to use some of the CARES Act funding to cover a certain cost, then we may make some choices because we do not have unlimited funding. But they’re not guesses. They’re intentional and supportive.”

Gov. Roy Cooper gave school districts the option to choose all-virtual classes instead of Plan B, and about half the districts in the state took the virtual option. Cabarrus County Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Schools and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools each opted for Plan C, all-virtual. A question about all-virtual classes, though, is whether it will widen inequities and be as effective as in-person learning.

But there are other issues, too, including staffing. If a district laid off staff for a Plan C model and schools were allowed to reopen a month later, it would be impossible to hire enough people quickly enough, Moody said.

The decision by the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education in favor of plan B was made on the recommendation of administration. Moody said the decision was based on the district’s absolute goal of teaching children.

“All of us went into this profession to be able to provide information and help children unleash their whole potential, to grow and mature,” Moody said. “That’s why.”

Several district administrators, including Moody, have said they believe in-person instruction is the most effective way to teach.

Teachers are split on the decision. Some want to return to school and mentally are prepared to do so. Others are physically afraid to.

In a letter from a number of Rowan-Salisbury Schools teachers provided to the Post, the educators said Plan C is the safest option and expressed worries about the spread of the virus through a classroom and, in turn, through families at home. There are concerns, too, about whether those who choose to teach at the Virtual Academy will be able to return to their home schools later. Plan C, the teachers said, doesn’t mean school is all-virtual for the entire year. Rather, students could return to classes when it’s safe to do so.

Moody said procedures in schools will make the buildings as safe as possible, and nothing will be 100% safe, but the district believes it can bring students back face-to-face. Students receive comfort and encouragement at school. And schools can help kids make healthier diet choices. Many child services cases are identified by schools, too.

Moody said she hopes schools can also teach students about preventing the spread of COVID-19 by showing them to wear face masks correctly, social distance and sanitize their hands regularly. She hopes kids take that knowledge home to their families and pass on those good habits.

If the district does have to return to all-virtual learning at some point, Moody said it will look like it did in March when schools were ordered to close, but the district is improving and perfecting its virtual teaching. She said the addition of the Summit Virtual Academy for K-8 students will help show teachers what to do.

This year, there will be grades and attendance taken, unlike the emergency model put in place at the end of last year.

Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann said it is uncertain if meals could be delivered students via yellow school buses as they were during the end of last semester and the summer. Currently, the plan is to make meals available for pickup from several school sites for virtual students and give them to in-person students on their designated days. On their designated in-person days, students will also be given shelf-stable meals to take home on the days they are out of school during the week.

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