Plan puts younger students back in class


School board to vote July 30 on returning

  • Hiwassee Dam High School is one of many Cherokee County campuses where staff hope to see students this fall. Photo by Sam Jokich
    Hiwassee Dam High School is one of many Cherokee County campuses where staff hope to see students this fall. Photo by Sam Jokich

    Murphy – All Cherokee County elementary and middle school students will be welcomed back to classrooms every day starting Aug. 17, if they want to be.
    That’s the plan Dr. Jeana Conley, superintendent of Cherokee County Schools, will present to the board of education for approval Thursday, July 30. County Health Director David Badger will also have to approve all parts of the plan.
    The plan also has high school students on campus once a week. However, to begin the year they will be remote learning every day, while staff works out any issues that arise with reopening.
    Conley said staff developed this plan because it is harder to teach younger children online, and those years are especially crucial in education. It is also economically beneficial to the community to have younger children in school.
    Conley said she appreciated everyone’s patience as the district develops its plans for reopening school, and they still have many questions. Some questions involve clarifications from the state, while parents can answer other questions through an ongoing survey.
    Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that schools could reopen under Plan B, which requires schools to have less children in classrooms each day and face coverings or masks on everyone from kindergarten through Grade 12. Districts also have the option of implementing Plan C, which is remote learning for all students. Cooper said he could change his decision to Plan C for all districts if conditions in the state worsen.
    “I was just sad we weren’t going to have a shot at being normal,” Conley said. The former elementary school principal also felt bad for pre-K and kindergarten students having a “modified version” of the first day of school. “It is such an important rite of passage … A door opens that day.”
    Conley said if the state changes plans, the district will follow. She added that if Cherokee County’s conditions with the virus worsen, she could also move the district into Plan C.
    Under the state’s Plan B, schools may only be filled to 50 percent of capacity – not enrollment – and everyone needs to maintain 6 feet of distance. District staff and principals are looking at ways to organize classrooms and use alternate spaces in the schools to accommodate those requirements. Four schools in the district were already at 50 percent or close to 50 percent capacity.
    To help staff prepare the details of the plan – primarily to determine how many children they can expect to have in the schools and needing transportation – the district shared a survey last week on its Facebook page. Within one day, 1,000 parents and guardians had already responded; so far, 35 percent across all schools want their child in a remote learning plan.
    School leaders were learning a lot of students are being raised by their grandparents and concerned about the risks. There were also several students with health issues that put them at a higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. Other parents just didn’t want their child wearing a mask all day.

Masks and safety
    The state has already sent Cherokee County Schools five reusable, washable masks for each student, teacher and staff member in every school, except for the 24 teachers whose salaries are paid for by the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. The district is looking into getting enough masks for those teachers through other means.
    Mask use is a concern for Conley, especially in elementary school.
    “It’s going to be a real struggle,” she said.
    While the state guidance outlines that masks are to be worn at all times on school grounds, it also advises schools to work in time throughout the day when breaks may taken from wearing masks, like outdoors or when windows are open and when people are maintaining 6 feet of distance. Conley is looking for more guidance from the state on those situations.
    The district is also discussing issues like making sure each child’s masks are laundered. Officials have considered collecting masks and properly cleaning them on weekends.
    In addition to masks, the schools have other safety measures in place. Anyone who arrives on campus with a fever or develops one during the day will be isolated in a sick bay. Conley is considering using plastic shower curtains as dividers, if needed, in each school’s sick bay.
    The district has one thermometer for every 100 students, and plans to check temperatures as students arrive, hopefully before they exit their cars. The state has also provided the district with two months’ worth of personal protective equipment, which will be managed by school nurses.
    Students’ movements throughout the building will be limited, with teachers visiting classrooms for different courses. The district has also ordered decals to place throughout the school to assist with defining traffic patterns and distancing. For physical education, there will be a focus on personal fitness.
    Water fountains were modified for filling water bottles. The district plans to provide one water bottle for each student to keep at school.

Testing for COVID-19
    If anyone in a school tests positive for COVID-19, the school would close for a couple days for contact tracing, and only those who had a likely chance of being exposed would be quarantined, according to guidance from the Cherokee County Health Department. If a teacher is quarantined by the health department, it will be covered under paid leave, which does not affect their paid time off, no matter how many times the teacher is quarantined.
    Conley said families will also not have to worry about their child missing school for illness.
    “We don’t want kids coming to school with a fever,” she said.
    Students who are well enough to continue learning while at home sick will be able to jump into remote learning, which will be made easier by the district’s new Canvas learning management platform. Every teacher will have their classes set up in the platform, which has a teleconference feature that allows students to dial in to their lessons instead of using the internet. Canvas also works with Google Classroom tools.
    Remote learning will be available for any student who would prefer that plan. However, the district wants students to make a semester-long commitment to the program for consistency. There will be attendance requirements for remote learning, and any student who chooses remote learning will still be considered a student at their school.
    The district is still working on its personnel policy concerning teachers who may not want to be in the classroom, but Conley said they would consider the needs of teachers with health issues.
    Conley said it is going to be a struggle to have enough teachers to educate children in a more spaced-out format. Elementary school teachers are certified to teach all elementary-level courses, and Conley said they may need to make some sacrifices for coverage. She added that many middle school teachers have multiple certifications.

    The state updated its requirements for transportation under Plan B, allowing one child per seat, or about 20 students on a bus. In the mornings, usually buses are at about a third of capacity, but in the evenings the buses are usually completely full, Conley said.
    As a result, the district will be asking families to reconsider using the buses. She said it is safer for children to not be enclosed in close proximity to children outside their household. If families need the bus, they would find a way to make it happen.
    Unfortunately, the district already needs more bus drivers. Many of the 48 bus routes were driven by school custodians, who will have to do double the work they were doing to keep the school buildings clean when school reopens.
    “I don’t want to get to a point where we have to go to remote learning because we don’t have enough drivers,” Conley said.
    Anyone interested in being a bus driver should contact Kristie Allison in Central Office at 837-2722. A training session was planned Tuesday, but another will be scheduled soon.

The Learning Center
    The Learning Center charter school, which is not under Cherokee County Schools, has developed its own plan for reopening under the state’s Plan B. It will be going forward with a staggered schedule so each student has time with their teachers each week.
    Some students will attend a half day of school Mondays and Tuesdays, with Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as remote learning days. Other students will have remote learning Mondays and Tuesdays, then will attend school Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
    Head of School Ryan Bender said students were split alphabetically so siblings and families could be at school on the same days. Because they know how students interact, teachers also helped arrange student schedules. The school formed a Return to School committee made up of teachers, parents, students and community members to help make decisions for the upcoming school year.
    “We have tried to be as prepared as possible for this decision so we could start helping our families feel comforted and safe going into next year,” Bender said. “It has been exciting to design an innovative program that could serve our community’s needs, but stressful to find a solution that will work for everyone.”
    Just like Cherokee County Schools, The Learning Center plans to follow the state’s Plan B until Cooper changes to another plan, or if conditions in the county cause the school to move to remote learning.
Bender said in a video announcement that staff would be calling every family member to go over the details of the plan. Families are also welcomed to choose a remote learning option.

The future
    Conley thinks every time there’s an event that affects schools, ideas on how schools should look change.
    “Columbine changed how we look at schools,” Conley said. “COVID will be no different, and we’ll learn.”
    She pointed out that Murphy High School has 85 access points, which was already a concern. As new school architecture provides less access points, she’s sure that as new school buildings are built in the county, considerations will be made to make the buildings more flexible for distancing in the classroom.