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A look back at the year-long debate over reopening NHCS

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NHCS Facebook page
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New Hanover County Schools elementary student on the first day back on March 12th.

It’s been a tumultuous year for our schools for parents,  teachers, and students. After Governor Roy Cooper officially closed North Carolina schools last March, it was almost seven months before New Hanover County families had the choice to return their kids even part-time to the classroom. WHQR takes a look back at a difficult year and, at some issues that still remain.

The announcement a year ago caught everyone by surprise. 

“I was out at brunch with two friends, and I got a call from the health department. And it was, ‘Hey, the Governor’s making an announcement today, schools are closing.”

Julie Varnam is the assistant superintendent of support services for New Hanover County Schools. She remembers being surprised just how quickly things unfolded.

“And I was like, I don’t think we expected that.”

Judy Justice is a current school board member. She says no one could have ever predicted what was to come: 

 

“It’s been a shock since day one.”

And the surprises kept coming.

David Wortman is a former New Hanover County School board member. He says he thought the initial school closures would be short-lived:

“We decided to cancel schools for a couple of weeks, and then see kind of where we were after that. And at some point, the reality kind of sets in that children are not going back to school.”

The school system remained closed for the rest of the school year. But as last spring wore on, administrators started planning for a partial return to the classroom. 

 

And that’s when the conflict began: On one side those who favored returning kids to class, and on the other, those who feared community spread of the virus and thought the risk was too great. David Wortman says parents should’ve had an option to return:

“I think that an overwhelming amount of parents wanted the ability to choose to go back to school. And I think that’s what was frustrating to some of the parents, and that’s kind of what I advocated for. I certainly never wanted to force kids back to school, but I did believe that it was important to give parents that option to go back to school.”

Ultimately, the school board decided to reopen “online-only” for the first nine weeks of the fall semester. They then gave parents an option for a part-time return in mid-October. 

Carla Turner is the assistant public health director for New Hanover County. She says during this turbulent time, school board members looked to her and her department to guide them through their reopening decisions. 

She says they advised them to follow CDC guidelines and state guidance on how and when to safely re-open schools.

 

“We keep referring back to that because that has got the most recent information, the most recent science and the best step-by-step process of how to move forward.”

Then, right before the holidays, school administrators began planning for a full-time return for elementary students. 

 

Board Member Justice was nervous about it. She says she lost some of her close family members to the virus. 

But ultimately, at their January 13th meeting, the board voted not to return elementary students to the classroom, even though the administration had made specific plans to do so.  

“Luckily, the majority said, ‘Oh, slow down.’ And because of that, the timing has worked out well. If we’d opened up right after Christmas, we could have had a huge disaster on our hands.”

But not everyone agreed with that decision. At that January meeting, School Board Vice-Chair Nelson Beaulieu cast the lone dissenting vote and urged the full return to the classroom. His concern was the mental health of students.  

“I thought the kids needed to be in school; I thought after ten months the damage that we were doing to our students was profound.”

But he says local decisions would’ve been easier if there had been a statewide policy.

“I was very disappointed with the lack of clear guidance from the state, I would have preferred that they set up an actual metric for each county, and just said, when you’re here, this is where you go.”

 

In the midst of it all, teachers felt caught in the crossfire. Kayleigh Pare is a sixth-grade social studies teacher at the International School at Gregory. She’s also the organizing lead for the New Hanover County Association of Educators

“When the pandemic first hit, it was kind of weird, because all of a sudden teachers were like national heroes, and they’re, you know, working so hard to teach kids from home, and we’re adapting to this strange situation. And then by the fall, it was like, ‘Why don’t these lazy teachers get back in the classroom, so I think a lot of teachers feel like things really shifted all of a sudden, and I think that makes a lot of teachers mad.”

Judy Justice agrees that the public was hard on teachers:

“We were getting crazy emails; I was getting phone calls. It was sad because these are wonderful people that are doing great things for our kids. And we’re going to be struggling to keep teachers in the profession after what’s gone on the last year.”

And Pare says she now has concerns over social distancing: 

“When one student tests positive, everyone who’s been within six feet of them for more than 15-minutes is going to have to quarantine.”

Outside of health concerns, Julie Varnam says the school system hopes to offer opportunities this summer to offset academic losses:  

“We're not done recovering if we open up five days a week for everybody, we're not finished with the recovery efforts, that's going to go on for quite some time.”

There is no way of knowing how the rest of the school year will turn out -- how mass vaccinations, restriction rollbacks, and emerging variants of Covid-19 will affect virus positivity rates.  But one thing is clear: it’s been a tough year for everyone.  Nelson Beaulieu:

“We’re a family in New Hanover County. And we get mad at each other, we fight with each other. But when we look back at this time, I think we’re going to remember a community that survived together that made decisions together and strove to do what was best for everybody.”

And the dilemma over reopening schools amid a pandemic shows that what’s best for everybody is open to interpretation.