School reopening a quandary as leaders wait for guidance

Education leaders in Harnett County are still trying to craft scenarios that will allow schools to safely reopen in August.
Education leaders in Harnett County are still trying to craft scenarios that will allow schools to safely reopen in August.
PIXABAY/ALEXANDRA KOCH
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Gov. Roy Cooper’s indecision last week regarding schools reopening left districts across the state in the dark.

Cooper intended to announce on July 1 what phase of re-entry school districts would adopt as plans to jumpstart campuses got underway in preparation of the new calendar set to begin on Aug. 17.

Harnett County Schools started developing three separate strategies as advised by the governor’s office in June: One for a full reopening, another for a combination of classroom and remote learning and a third option resembling how schools concluded the 2019-20 year.

HCS looked at the governor’s office for some direction last week and came away with nothing.

“As of right now, we’re still waiting for direction from the state,” HCS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Fleming said on Wednesday. “We were supposed to hear from the governor on July 1 and never heard anything. We’re kind of going at this alone, if you will.”

With the governor offering no specific plan, Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) said all kinds of wild ideas are being tossed around to reopen school campuses and concern among parents continues to grow.

“We’re getting hammered with it,” said Burgin of calls from constituents. “I get questions about this every day. [Cooper] was supposed to make some announcement on his three plans before he pulled it at the last minute. We’re all trying to figure out what they’re going to do and right now I just don’t know. The ideas I’ve heard so far have not been practical ideas.”

One such option centered around not opening high schools and using the buildings to space other students out. Fleming and Burgin both said such a decision creates an assortment of issues that still leaves school districts facing unprecedented challenges and unintended consequences.

“I think that is tough because it’s putting little kids in a high school and learning a whole new campus,” Fleming said. “I don’t think that’s [the] best answer for us. There are a lot of ideas out there and our reopening task force has talked about a lot of those. We need direction from the state because we don’t want to go it alone.”

Burgin cited a few of the consequences stemming from high schoolers remaining at home, including a rise in teenage pregnancy and a decrease in classroom productivity.

“This idea of telling high schoolers to stay home is a terrible idea and it’s not fair for rural North Carolina,” said Burgin. “That’s a big concern. I’m worried about an increase in dropouts. Some kids are self-motivated, but some kids have to be in a classroom setting. You’re going to have kids who are going to be out doing other things. Just think of all the trouble they can get into if left unattended. Parents have to go back to work. They can’t just stay home with them and supervise.”

HCS Board of Education members echoed similar sentiments at its recent meeting, citing numerous concerns related to student participation with remote learning.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of teachers who said the last few months of school were a complete waste,” Burgin said. “On average only about 40% of the kids did what they were supposed to do. They had some students who wouldn’t even respond to them.”

HCS’ reopening task force relied on Cooper’s office for guidance because Fleming said staff worries that whatever plan they develop could be undone by an announcement from the governor.

“We want someone to at least say that if we make a decision that’s OK, we’ll back you up,” said Fleming. “I’m worried that the minute we make a decision, the state will come out and say something different.”

Burgin insisted that the proof already was in the pudding as daycares mainly stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic with no large outbreaks reported. The idea that teachers could effectively enforce social distancing or mask wearing with elementary school children, Burgin said, isn’t practical.

“We’ve already proven that the virus isn’t that serious with kids because we kept the daycares open,” Burgin said. “Those kids are not social distanced and they’re not masked. Why are all of the daycares open and functioning yet we’re so overwhelmed thinking about schools opening? We know this virus affects people over 65 and those with pre-existing conditions more severely. We’ve been saying this since March and the governor continues to pick winners and losers. Can you imagine telling a 5- or 6-year-old that they have to wear a mask all day?”

Fleming said there are liability concerns with reopening campuses, but the district remains committed to returning students back to classrooms. HCS plans to introduce an online virtual academy for students whose parents don’t want them to return to school and administrators remain focused on the safety of staff and children. A key component to a safe reopening, Fleming said, is ensuring sick students or staff don’t come to school.

“We have to do all we can to mitigate the spread of the virus but it’s very tough,” said Fleming. “Public school districts are the number one economic engine for a community. We think it’s important for HCS to get back in business so everyone else can get back to business. We just have to make sure that everything we’re doing is safe and we’re not putting students or staff in the way of getting infected. The fears of spread are there. There is a concern that we don’t want to be the hub of spreading the virus.

“We want everyone back in school. That’s been our goal and is still our goal, even as the days tick off the calendar.”

Until the issue of reopening is addressed, other aspects of campus life such as sports and transportation hang in limbo. School districts have to figure how to manage bus routes amidst social distancing guidelines, a challenge with more than one financial question mark. Burgin said community bus stops is under consideration, as well as staggered routes for what could be a modified schedule where students go to school for one week and are off for two weeks.

School systems face a hydra of questions when it comes to reopening: solve one and two more pop up in its place.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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