The Cabarrus County Board of Education voted 4-3 in favor of opening the school year under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Plan C (fully remote learning) at a special meeting Monday.
Conditions apply to this decision. The board will perform a semi-monthly review of recommendations from Superintendent Chris Lowder and the Cabarrus Health Alliance based on a 14-day decline in COVID-19 cases in the county.
The review will occur at the first work session meeting of each month and on the third Monday of each month.
Board members Barry Shoemaker, Cindy Fertenbaugh, David Harrison and Carolyn Carpenter voted in favor of the decision, while Rob Walter, Holly Grimsley and Laura Blackwell voted against it.
Superintendent recommends Plan C
There was only one item on the agenda for this special meeting, and the members did not take the discussion lightly, taking 4½ hours over a Zoom call to vote.
Lowder recommended the district open under Plan C due to a variety of factors.
“At the end of the day, the best standard practice includes looking at the number of cases, the percent of positives and hospitalizations,” he said. “They’re all trending in the wrong direction.
“And so, based on the safety of all of the students, staff and our community, I am recommending to the Board of Education that we begin school on Plan C.”
The governor gave districts the option of either going fully remote under Plan C or partially remote under Plan B at a news conference last week. Schools were not allowed to go back to school at 100 percent capacity under his plan.
Lowder’s decision to recommend this plan comes as Cabarrus is one of only 37 counties in the state currently in what is called a “Red Zone,” which means there are more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population. North Carolina itself is one of 18 states currently designated as a “Red Zone” as a whole.
As of Thursday’s meeting, Cabarrus County has seen 2,112 cases of COVID-19, with 576 of the cases being active. Thirty-eight residents have died, while 40 are currently hospitalized.
Cases of COVID-19 have more than quadrupled in the county since Cooper reopened the state in May. That puts the school district in a spot where it's not comfortable sending students back to school and possibly putting staff members or family members of children at risk.
“Really, what you need to see is those data points we mentioned declining for two full incubation periods, which is 14 days. That’s why the quarantine is 14 days,” Lowder said. “So if we have declines in those areas for 14 days, then you can start looking at a startup date and then, hopefully, they can continue to decline, and then after 28 days you could say, ‘OK, now is the time to move into Plan B,’ not when we are spreading all over the community.
“Plan B, ultimately, is obviously the goal. There’s not an educator in the world that’s worth their salt that doesn’t think face to face instruction is the best, but we’ve got to have a situation that’s safe for everybody involved and clearly not in the middle of a situation that’s spreading the disease.”
CCS presented the Board of Education with an option last week that would have had students on campus once a week with no classroom exceeding 50-percent capacity.
They wanted to get students back on campus, but Lowder’s recommendation and additional advisement from the Cabarrus Health Alliance may have been what it took to swing the decision to start with fully remote learning.
Input from 2019-20 Teacher of the Year Emily Wagoner also provided a look into what many teachers may be feeling going into the year.
“With the number of COVID-19 cases in our community rapidly growing and far exceeding what they were in March, you can’t blame teachers for wanting to understand why are we discussing returning to in-person instruction to some degree, especially when we’re meeting to discuss this virtually,” she said in a prepared statement.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that many teachers are feeling unsure and unsafe about going into the building, even at a limited capacity. I fear that if we do not provide support and address those concerns, we will lose high-quality teachers to surrounding counties who are operating under Plan C.”
She said this fall’s remote learning will look much different than it did in the spring, as teachers have had an entire summer to prepare for this scenario, whereas they were thrust into the situation in March without much warning.
All the information presented didn’t make the decision the Board of Education had to make any easier, but it did put a lot into perspective.
“I had a long speech, and it’s all been blown out of the water by the reality of the medical professionals who are schooling us on what we’re messing with here, what we’re dealing with here,” Harrison said. “These are dangerous times, and we’re trying to come up with the best plan possible.”
Harrison said he wants to make sure the public is informed and updated as soon as possible when decisions are made.
Timing aside, there were still several issues to discuss, including one that has been discussed since the shutdown in March: Is online learning a good enough option for students?
“At the end of the day, our job as a board is to provide the best education we can for the kids of Cabarrus County and make sure that we are providing them with a quality education, and right now, we’re not,” Blackwell said. “As much as we would love to say this whole thing is going to work well, really, it’s not going to be the same as at least getting a day with your teacher to ask questions, if you have questions, about the things that you learned over the four days, it’s just not the same, and I think that we all know that.”
Blackwell was in favor of Plan B based off that. As Lowder said, every educator knows that being able to be in person with students is better than online learning, and Blackwell was hopeful they could make it work with that option.
As the governor has pointed out in recent weeks, Blackwell said, masks have been shown to help slow the spread of the virus, as has social distancing. The district has a plan to provide both of those options.
Shoemaker, though, pointed out flaws in the testing system, which make it difficult to know who has the virus and when they have it. That could present problems with having staffers and students on campus.
“The testing process is so screwed up right now and so far behind that we’re literally three weeks from knowing whether we’re increasing even faster than we thought we were or whether we’re actually going down,” he said.
He said that while masks have been required in the state for the better part of three weeks now, people still are not following the order in the county and the virus continues to spread. And with the incubation period being as long as it is, and additionally, with as many people being asymptomatic as there are, it makes it very difficult to send students into classrooms and run the risk of them not wearing masks properly or failing to social distance and then putting more people at risk.
“I am alarmed that we had this increase this summer,” Shoemaker said. “Obviously, members of Cabarrus County, members of this state didn’t take things very seriously, and I think they put everyone at risk because they wouldn’t protect others from themselves.”
He said the concerns over online learning are warranted, but the district has to make it work because he doesn’t see COVID-19 going away anytime soon.
Board members went back and forth on this discussion for a while, and they clearly had a tough time coming to a decision.
“My point of view, I go back to that a lot of kids have struggled with online learning, so I think it’s important that we have at least some face time with our students,” said board Chair Rob Walter. “It goes back to Dr. (Mandy) Cohen (Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services), who is the lead person here in North Carolina on this COVID issue — monitoring and seeing the numbers every day — she still says: ‘It’s important for kids for their health and emotional and social well-being that missing school could be harmful to children.’
“And she knows that if we’re sending kids back, the numbers are going to go up, she’s got to know that, she watches that stuff, and she still says she’ll send her kids to school, it’s that important. So that sticks with me.”
Motions were made both to go with Plan B and with Plan C with conditions, and there was plenty of discussion on both.
One key point brought up is that CCS is the largest employer in the county. All in all, with staffers and students, the district is responsible for more than 39,000 people every day. That puts a lot of pressure on their shoulders.
“There’s a lot to navigate here,” Fertenbaugh said. “I worry about the potentially abused and neglected kids and teachers not seeing them. There’s a lot on my mind as everyone else said.
“But at the end, if we want to help our overall community, we need to take the responsibility of those 39,000 people and make sure they are as safe as we can possibly control it, so for that reason, at least in the near-term, we need to do Option C.”
All the board members repeatedly acknowledged throughout the meeting that no matter what decision the board made, someone was not going to be happy.
Ultimately, though, opening under Plan C is the better option, according to Lowder, and that is how the board voted.
“The logistics of Plan B are absolutely tremendous,” he said. “Just from a ‘how do you get people transported back and forth to school with only one seat in a bus and bus drivers, and temperature checks, and feeding kids in the classroom,’ the logistics of Plan B for every district in North Carolina will be a humongous undertaking. Not one that we can’t do, but it will be huge.
“We’ve already done Plan C, and I think the bigger part of that, which we tried to present at the beginning is, if we open up under Plan B, we will spread COVID-19 more in the community than it’s been spread today, per the medical people.
“And so that is the reason that I would recommend strongly that we open under C.”
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