NHC School Board members reflect on their reopening decision, await post-holiday Covid-19 metrics

Dec 17, 2020


  The New Hanover County School Board has approved reopening pre-k-5 schools for full in-personing learning on January 19th, pushing back an earlier opening date by a week. It’s been a difficult decision for members, especially the newest ones who had to make up their minds quickly. 

Back in early November when the school board discussed reopening elementary schools for all in-person learning, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said he wasn’t ready. 

“If we can get our county at five percent or less, then we can start to look at measures of going to a different plan and it would have to be two consistent weeks. We’re not there yet; our numbers are too high.”

Currently, close to 13% of coronavirus tests conducted in the state have come back positive, and for New Hanover County, it’s a rate near 10%

At a board special meeting last Saturday, members voted unanimously to reopen elementary schools on January 19th. Board Member Nelson Beaulieu says concerns over student academic achievement and social-emotional well-being are reasons to reopen.

“I think right now in New Hanover County and across North Carolina, across the country, nobody’s going to sit there and tell you the metrics are good. They’re bad, but what’s happening to our students is also problematic. This compounded negative consequence of not being in school for our K-5 learners, it has really just reached a point where we can’t ignore that either.” 

Before this special meeting, the board met earlier that week to swear-in the four newest members. But after the ceremony, things quickly became contentious around the superintendent’s introduction of the plan to reopen those schools full-time, with an option for families to remain fully remote. Board member Stephanie Kraybill:

“So our first board meeting was a little rough. To say the least, I came away with mixed feelings. I was very excited that the county commissioners generously gave us the much needed and appreciated additional funding that we could certainly use immediately, but left with some misgivings about our decision.” 

Kraybill is referring to the $ 1,500 holiday bonuses for employees, funded equally by the commission and the board, which some members of the public view as a factor in their decision to move to Plan A. 

Another new member, Stephanie Walker, is upset that the decision was thrust upon them at their first meeting. She also says the district didn’t have specifics on how they would reopen:

“That was not a plan, that was just this is what we’re going to do. We’ll figure it out later. So the feeling about going back to Plan A, I’ve been very clear with this, I just don’t think it’s safe.” 

But board member Judy Justice says if the pandemic metrics continue to worsen, there’s enough time to reconsider their decision either at their January 5th meeting or at their special meeting right before the planned reopening:

“So the January 19th date will give us an opportunity not just to plan but also to monitor what’s going on in the community. I don’t believe any of us want to endanger any of our children, or staff and community members.” 

 

Hugh McManus, also one of the board’s newest members, says in order for Plan A to go well most people within the school have to be on board.

“The success of the implementation of any program, particularly this, is only as good as the buy-in by the teachers and staff, the cafeteria workers, the custodians; it takes everybody.” 

He also says the board members are trying their best to do what’s right for the district:

“And we’re going to make mistakes and we’re human. And hopefully, we can reflect and then correct it when found that something else works better. Unfortunately, you can’t please everybody, but you have to make a decision. We just can’t sit there and not react and not act.” 

 

According to the New Hanover County Schools Covid-19 tracker, cases of the virus in schools are increasing exponentially.

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New Hanover County Schools has released a Covid-19 ‘decision matrix’ for operations. The document provides guidance on decisions related to closing or opening schools.

The document was presented at the last board meeting. (Story continues below.)

NHCS Decision Matrix (Update Dec. 9, 2020) by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

And some members voiced concerns that they hadn’t been able to review it before making the decision to move pre-k-5 students to full in-person learning. 

School Board Member Judy Justice:

“I wish I had looked at it before and had an opportunity to be prepared with questions about it.”

But Justice says since the meeting it’s been revised and explained to the members. But board member Stephanie Walker wants more clarity on how it can guide them on making future reopening decisions.

“I’m still a little confused by it. Not the document stuff, like I get what it’s meant to do, but I’m still confused how it’s being used right now within the system. But it is a good tool because it just helps put the pieces together.” 

The main factors for evaluation are numbers associated with virus cases, quarantine, clusters, and staffing. And there are three risk levels: moderate, elevated, and high. 

Right now, in terms of positive cases in the district, it’s an elevated risk, with 31 schools in the past two weeks reporting at least one positive coronavirus case. But most of these are in middle and high schools. 

 

The following statement was sent by Board Chair Stefanie Adams:

 In these unprecedented times, the Board is grateful for Dr. Foust's leadership, the dedication and efforts of all NHCS employees, and a strong partnership with our County Commissioners and Health Department.  The safety and success of students and staff remains our top priority as we continue to review data, listen to stakeholders, and work together to provide optimal learning opportunities for all students in 2021 and beyond.   I feel confident that the plan to move elementary students to Plan A on January 19 gives families, teachers, and district operations like transportation and child nutrition, adequate time to prepare for a safe return to in-person learning full time, something we know is essential to the social emotional health and academic success of our students.  The district is continuing to monitor COVID-19 data in partnership with the NHC Health Dept. and the ABC Collaborative. We encourage all students and staff to practice the 3W's and follow CDC guidelines during the holiday break for a safe return to in person learning for as many of our students as possible in the second semester.