Many families uncomfortable with returning to school this fall, survey finds

Only 35% of Wake County, N.C., families say they want just in-person instruction to be used in the fall


The News & Observer 
By T. Keung Hui

RALEIGH, N.C. — Many Wake County families are uncomfortable with returning to school this fall, complicating the school district's efforts to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Only 43% of the more than 25,000 parents and students who took a Wake County school system survey said they're comfortable with going back on campus next school year. The majority of the respondents want at least some use of online instruction this fall, with only 35% saying they want just in-person instruction being used.

While states are taking similar approaches to returning students to the classroom, some are more cautious than others. Summer school will be resuming in New Jersey on July 6, with in-person instruction allowed. Lisa Feldman, a custodian at Mainland regional High School, wipes down a door using hospital-grade disinfectant. Image: NJ.com/Tim Hawk via TNS
While states are taking similar approaches to returning students to the classroom, some are more cautious than others. Summer school will be resuming in New Jersey on July 6, with in-person instruction allowed. Lisa Feldman, a custodian at Mainland regional High School, wipes down a door using hospital-grade disinfectant. Image: NJ.com/Tim Hawk via TNS

Wake County school board members who reviewed the data said they need to balance the concerns of families and staff who are worried about the continuing impact of COVID-19.

I doubt seriously that the parents of 162,000 children are going to line up to bring their kids for school," said school board member Bill Fletcher. "The reality is we're going to have to have a remote learning strategy in order to maintain our ADM (average daily membership) and to maintain our teacher corps."

School districts working on 3 reopening plans

School districts and charter schools across North Carolina are working on plans for how to reopen schools after having been closed since mid-March to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services released health guidance for reopening schools (which can be reviewed in full below). Also last week, the State Board of Education adopted the state Department of Public Instruction's strategies for using the health guidance.

Schools are being asked to develop three reopening plans, ranging from using minimal to moderate social distancing to only offering online learning.

Gov. Roy Cooper will decide by July 1 which plan level should be used. School districts can use a more restrictive plan but not a less restrictive one.

If statewide COVID-19 metrics stabilize and improve, schools would reopen under Plan A with "minimal social distancing" and all students would be on campus at the same time. Social distancing would only be required where individuals may congregate, such as hallways, reception areas, cafeterias, restrooms and lockers.

Wake county says more money needed for reopening

Schools would be required to do daily symptom screening and temperature checks of all students, staff and visitors who enter schools and buses.

School board members said the district will need additional money to do the enhanced cleanings and to hire people such as nurses to do the screenings.

A lot of the recommended actions coming from the state to help ensure safety seem to carry a price tag," said school board member Chris Heagarty. "I have concern that some of the recommendations, while they seem very wise suggestions, I don't know necessarily how we pay for them."

If the COVID-19 metrics don't improve, more stringent requirements with "moderate social distancing" would be used in Plan B. Schools and buses would be required to operate at 50% capacity and students maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

DPI is suggesting strategies such as having students go to school on alternating days or alternating weeks or having students spend half the school day on campus and the other half learning from home.

Board members said it would cause childcare problems for families if students are in school on alternating schedules.

"It's unworkable for parents," Fletcher said. "You can't go to work every other day."

The district is working on how to accommodate social distancing in classrooms and on buses.

The goal would be to limit most classrooms to 16 to 18 students and provide 50 sq. ft. per student. Many schools use tables in classrooms, so they'll need to get individual desks for students to allow for separation.

School bus changes may be needed

School bus transportation could be a challenge in a district which for years has had difficulty recruiting enough drivers. Bob Snidemiller, senior director of transportation, said it's unclear how many of the 60 bus drivers over the age of 65 will feel comfortable returning.

Wake's standard is a 72-passenger bus. But if they're required to provide 6 feet of distancing, Snidemiller said the capacity is dropped to 11 riders. He said that large a reduction could force them to make changes such as having additional bus runs, changing bus stops and changing school bell schedules.

Snidemiller said using 4 feet of social distancing would allow for 22 riders and have less of an impact.

One of the things that will take up time is the daily symptom checks before boarding, which Snidemiller said could require having an additional adult on each bus.

Snidemiller said that DHHS will allow parents to fill out a one-time form promising not to let their children ride the bus if they're feeling sick. Heagarty said use of the "honor system" could cause some families to decide they don't want to risk putting their kids on the bus.

"There's a lot of parent doubt about how honest some other parents might be in attesting that their kids are healthy," Heagarty said.

Superintendent Cathy Moore said that once the different plans are completed, they'll be presented to the board for its approval. Year-round and modified-calendar schools are set to open Aug. 3, with traditional-calendar schools beginning Aug. 17.

We too feel the sense of urgency," said Lloyd Gardner, Wake's chief of staff and strategic planning. "We feel pressed to move forward with a lot of the work. But we also have to be fair and responsible to our students and our teachers that we're making the best decisions possible."

Review the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit:

NC School Health Reopening Guidance by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

(c)2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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