Local students will have two historic first days of school this week

Published 12:10 am Sunday, August 16, 2020

By Carl Blankenship

SALISBURY — Most Rowan County public school students this week will head back into classrooms for the first time since March.

The gap in in-person instruction is unprecedented, and Monday will test the plan B model Rowan-Salisbury Schools administration created to bring students back into school. With about a month to bring a plan together, hiccups are expected.

Transportation is among the challenges with which Rowan-Salisbury Schools will contend this week. Typically, RSS transports 9,700 students to and from school on buses five days a week, which adds up to about half the student population. The number of students does not change much year to year, but this year is different because thousands of students were diverted to virtual school, some families responded late to surveys, other students are either having second thoughts about virtual or in-person education and other parents will drive their child to school.

The district also has to contend with a split schedule and transporting two groups of students through the week to accommodate the blended model under which classes will start.

RSS Transportation Director Tim Beck said normally, though a few mistakes are expected, the district would have transportation numbers figured out before the start of school. This year is different.

Beck said transportation staff members are not entirely sure what buses will find on Monday. Will there will be students who are not registered to ride at stops? Will there be students at stops who are supposed to have their first day later in the week? Will the information from completed surveys reflect correct address information?

Meanwhile, buses that could normally care 72 elementary school students can now only carry 24. Even with the number of students cut in half, many parents choosing to drive their child to school and thousands diverted to virtual-only, there will be a challenge for RSS transportation staff, which, like all the other districts in the state, is facing a shortage of bus drivers.

The driver shortage was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the issue has only grown as a result. Beck said 70% of bus drivers have other roles — ranging from teacher assistants to nutrition workers.

Just 30% are bus drivers only — a part-time job Beck said is mostly done by retirees who are looking for something fulfilling. Many of those drivers fall into high-risk categories and will not be returning out of fear for themselves or for taking COVID-19 home to other people who are high-risk.

Routes may need to be run more than once in a day. And Beck said there are questions about what will happen with transportation on Monday that deserve answers, but remain unanswered.

Beck has worked for the district for 25 years, spending 15 in transportation and the previous six in the director role. But this year is the most stressful yet. Being responsible for the well-being of more than 9,000 naturally brings stress, but Beck said there’s an especially steep uphill battle this year that he’s determined to conquer.

“We’re not going to give it our all, we’re going to give it 1,000%,” Beck said.

Beck is asking for patience from the community and said staff members are trying the best they can to handle the situation.

For the first time on record, there will be two first days of in-person classes for students.

While at home, students will complete a questionnaire asking questions about their COVID-19 status, how they feel and if they have been exposed. Parents also are asked to record a child’s temperature before they leave. The goal is to keep COVID-19 from reaching the buildings.

Once they arrive, students will have their temperatures checked again. If a student becomes symptomatic during the day, they will be moved to an observation room — outfitted with an air scrubber — and the district is hiring health monitors to assist with screening and monitoring students.

Students will be required wear masks in school and and socially distance. Classrooms have been laid out to maintain 6 feet of distance, and teachers have also been given face shields to provide an extra layer of protection for themselves.

Students will be able to order meals, which will be provided for free, from their school-issued devices. Traditional students will be sent home, whether on Tuesday or Friday, with shelf-stable meals for the days they are out of school.

The week will look different for virtual students. While traditional students will spend three days a week in virtual learning, others will not step foot in a classroom.

Most virtual students will attend Summit Virtual K-8 academy, though high school students also had the option to enroll virtually through their schools.

Superintendent Lynn Moody said the district hopes to reopen schools under Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan A as soon as it is safe to do so, and the system has asked for a full-year commitment for virtual students.

The district created the Summit K-8 Virtual Academy while anticipating nearby districts would do the same. For years, there have also been public and private options for virtual learning, including the N.C. version of Connections Academy, an online charter school.

Some nearby districts, including Cabarrus County Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, will not send any students back to classrooms at the beginning of the year. Kannapolis City Schools, though, will return under a blended model similar to the one adopted by RSS.

KCS Superintendent Chip Buckwell said the district has its first cohort of students coming to class on Monday, and about 30% of the district’s 5,700 students opted for its virtual-only option.

Buckwell said being a small district has its advantages. The district is only about 6 miles end-to-end, which makes transportation troubles easier, and minute-to-minute communication is easier with fewer schools.

Both Moody and Buckwell admit it is likely there will be COVID-19 cases identified in schools, but Moody says she is hopeful the district can teach students infection control measures such as maintaining the proper amount of social distance, wearing a mask correctly and hand sanitation.

Moody has also said plan B — returning students to schools at 50% density with enhanced cleaning protocols, social distancing, face coverings, and other infection control measures — is the most complicated and expensive option for schools. RSS is unsure of how long it can maintain plan B, but it is unsustainable for the entire year.

The decision to move to plan B and not go entirely online was controversial. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education agreed to move forward with the plan with only a single opposing vote from Alisha Byrd-Clark, who cited safety concerns, but the board heard from concerned teachers during that meeting as well.

Moody, at the time, said teachers were split on the issue, but she and district staff leaned ever so slightly toward recommending plan B over a return to virtual learning. The district had its own adaptation of plan A, B and C laid out before Gov. Cooper made the decision about how schools would be allowed to open in July.

On Aug. 5, Cooper extended reopening phase two restrictions, dubbed “Safer at Home,” by five weeks.

“Just lots of emotions building inside to opening this new school year,” Moody said in a statement. “We have moved through fear, uncertainty, anxiousness to excitement and anticipation in seeing our students for the first time in five months. We are so ready to see our children back in our schools with teachers. We know we will have our challenges and will encounter bumps along the way, but we are as prepared as we could possibly be. As I visited schools you could feel the energy in our buildings.”

Moody said she is proud of everyone who works for the district that will make plan B work, adding classrooms look different, but staff have worked to make the schools special, fun and safe.

She said the district will spend extra time helping students adapt to changes at the beginning of the year and will listen to what students have gone through since March.

During a virtual town hall with the Rowan-Salisbury NAACP on Thursday, Moody pointed out children have experienced the pandemic, nationwide social unrest and even an earthquake since they left schools in March.

“Safety is our focus,” Moody said. “We will practice implementing extreme safety measures to keep our students and staff safe. I again ask for everyone’s patience and grace as we move through these procedures and protocols that are essential to keeping us moving forward in plan B. I appreciate all the support we are receiving as we serve our children.”

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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