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Editorial: Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ best option may be staying the course

When Gov. Roy Cooper made an announcement Tuesday about students needing to return to classrooms, he wasn’t talking to Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

In both a letter to superintendents and during a news conference, Cooper and other state leaders said schools must provide in-person instruction.

“While we may still be months away from the end of this pandemic, our children’s well-being is too important to wait when we can act safely now. We urge you to make sure our children will have the opportunity to be back in classrooms,” Cooper, Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis said in the letter.

The key word is opportunity. Since the beginning of the year, Rowan-Salisbury Schools hasn’t wavered from its plan to send students to class two days per week and make the other days virtual only. Students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools have been able to choose all-virtual options, too.

Cooper’s announcement was an appeal to districts that haven’t yet brought students into classrooms at all. And local educators realize that.

“Children who rely solely on remote instruction are feeling the negative effects of isolation, including learning loss, mental health challenges and food insecurity,” a news release said.

Reacting to the decision, Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district is in a good place — two days a week in person for all students and one day between the two groups of students for teachers and staff as well as cleaning in the school building. And he’s right.

Cooper’s announcement is confirmation that Rowan-Salisbury Schools picked a good option for its schedule. The question Rowan-Salisbury Schools now faces is whether there are sufficient reasons to move to a five-day schedule.

Most likely, it will be a better option for overall student well-being and connect them with friends they haven’t seen in months because their names are too far from each other in the alphabet. It will be stress relief for parents, grandparents, in-laws, aunts and other family members who have been charged with trying to be a teacher during virtual days.

But health concerns loom large, particularly because of the death of a Knox Middle School teacher. The logistics of keeping staff safe while they’re teaching or working in a school building becomes a more difficult consideration when classes aren’t split in two. Even if teachers were placed at the very front of the line for COVID-19 vaccines, the limited supply available raises major questions about how quickly a large-enough portion could receive both shots.

This week, Salisbury High parents also have received letters repeatedly warning of new COVID-19 cases, though no clusters (five or more cases linked to one another) have been identified yet. Because schools reflect what’s happening in the community, it’s worth noting the improvement in cases reported daily across the state looks somewhat different locally, with high numbers still being reported and multiple deaths per day appearing in county statistics.

There are many reasons to bring students back to class five days per week, but it’s not clear the reasons outweigh health concerns. For now, the best option for Rowan-Salisbury Schools may be staying the course.

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