CONCORD — A group of parents and educators held a press conference Monday asking Cabarrus County Schools to delay a move to Plan A for kindergarten through third grade starting Feb. 16.
The press conference was held at the Education Center on Old Airport Road before the Board of Education’s work session at 6 p.m. It was followed with a "Hear Our Voice" rally. The release for the press conference asks the board for three things before reopening:
• Allow educators to get vaccinated before moving to Plan A.
• Guarantee 6 feet of social distance for students as well as masks and hand washing.
• Give full transparency on virus data in schools.
The move to Plan A also includes students classified as EC, ELL, 504 and McKinney-Vento.
"As a parent, I really want my kids back in school, but I want them back in school when we can reopen safely," said Ashley Price, a parent of third- and fourth-grade students at Irwin Elementary and a 10th-grade student at Mount Pleasant at the press conference. "I wish we had vaccines for people under 16, but unfortunately we don't, not yet, and that's why we need 6 feet of social distancing inside of our schools and for our teachers to be vaccinated."
The School Board voted 5-2, with Tim Furr, Keshia Sandidge, Denise Adcock, Holly Grimsley and Laura Blackwell voting in favor of moving to Plan A, while Rob Walter and Carolyn Carpenter voted against it at last week’s annual board retreat.
All students in grades four through 12 — apart from those classified as EC, ELL, 504 and McKinney-Vento — will remain in Plan B on that date.
Citing medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci saying schools should be open, Gov. Roy Cooper’s allowance of elementary schools to move to Plan A, and a falling infection rate due to COVID-19 in the county (down from nearly 18% Jan. 2 to 12.01% Jan. 23), the School Board elected to move into Plan A on Feb. 16.
The board also voted to move into Plan A for fourth and fifth graders starting March 16, but this was done with the caveat that if it can’t be done safely, the board will reconsider. The board said it wanted to give families time to plan to make a move to Plan A in March rather than giving them a short amount of time to prepare.
Educators and parents demonstrated outside the Education Center on the day the board voted to move into Plan A, citing — among other things — a desire for educators to be vaccinated before reopening with no classroom limits. The announcement of this press conference doubled down on that sentiment.
“Twenty-three states are vaccinating educators during the pandemic,” said Susan Foulks, an elementary school teacher in Cabarrus County, in the release announcing the press conference. “Why is North Carolina not on this list? Why do our elected leaders heap all kinds of praise on educators? They say we are essential. They say nothing is more important than opening our schools. So then, why are they not vaccinating educators to protect us from this virus?”
Teachers and school staffers are currently not among those allowed to be vaccinated in North Carolina unless they are 65 or older.
School Board member Carolyn Carpenter also expressed a desire for teachers to be vaccinated before reopening in Plan A and said she is worried the schools will not be able to maintain social distance with a move to full face-to-face instruction with no limits on classroom numbers as per the governor’s orders.
Getting all staff members vaccinated will be a long process for the district, and one the state will control.
“We don’t get a say in that,” said Board Chair Holly Grimsley in a phone call Monday. “That is a state mandate. The state decides how those vaccinations are administered, not us. We do not have a say in that. We have advocated for them to push teachers forward to classify them with the groups that are getting those first-round vaccinations.
“We have done that. We have spoken with the legislators, we have done what we feel like we can do, but we have no control over that and neither does the (Cabarrus) Health Alliance.”
Some counties in the state, like Davie, Union, Jackson and Rutherford, have confirmed early vaccinations for teachers, but Cabarrus has not announced it is doing so yet.
Officials with the Cabarrus Health Alliance said they have encouraged teachers and other community members to join the wait list for a vaccine. CHA uses the waitlist to fill appointments at clinics that have cancellations or if leftover vaccines are anticipated. They start by reaching out to the prioritized populations (Group 1 and 2) first, and then expand from there.
CHA is following the state guidance for rollout. Part of the state guidance includes not leaving any vaccine wasted, so that has been the only way that some teachers and school staffers have received their first dose.
Furr said he hopes the schools will be able to maintain social distance and get creative to do so, using cafeterias and gyms if needed to allow schools to space children appropriately. All schools also have mask mandates as well as a requirement for daily strict cleaning procedures. Social distancing will be strived for, though it is admittedly a challenge.
Superintendent Chris Lowder said social distancing in Plan A is possible for the population moving into that phase as planned on Feb. 16, but it will be more difficult for those in fourth and fifth grades.
Parents and children still have the option to keep their students in Plan C, but staff members have not been given the option to work remotely yet, though several board members — including Grimsley, Furr, Adcock and Sandidge — have been adamant about creating an option for at-risk teachers to educate from home.
Since taking their seats in December, the focus of new members Furr, Sandidge and Adcock has been to get children into school in Plan A. Grimsley has been pushing for that as well since before the election, while Blackwell and Walter did, too. However, Walter did vote against a move to Plan A last week, saying he wanted more information before voting affirmatively.
The School Board has created a Task Force to gather information from school employees as well as community members looking for the right way to reopen schools. Grimsley first suggested its creation in December and cited much of the information included in the first summary of their initial meetings in her decision to vote for a move to Plan A.
“They’ve asked us to not go from C to A; we went from C to B to A,” Grimsley said. “They asked us to give them plenty of time to make sure that the overall community picture was looking better; that it allowed staff and transportation and our substitute questions about shortages (to be) answered; they asked us to allow them a transition time that was doable and that they could work with … and that’s what we did.”
From the time of the vote to move to Plan A last week, the district and parents had three weeks to make arrangements for the transition. Fourth- and fifth-grade parents and teachers have seven weeks.
As of now, there is no plan from the Board of Education to move from its decision to go to Plan A starting Feb. 16. However, if numbers change, the School Board is open to adjusting its plan.
“When we get closer, if (the numbers) are not trending down like we are seeing and it’s a problem and that number looks different,” Grimsley said, “then this board will re-evaluate and decide if it needs to do anything differently.”