Plotting a course for Jackson County Schools

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Board of Education moves forward with plans to reopen schools under new guidelines from Governor Cooper's office

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The Jackson County Public Schools Board of Education is grappling with many difficult questions about the upcoming return to school for Jackson County students, dedicating their July 7 meeting to addressing some of the biggest concerns surrounding their return. 
Some big topics needed addressing about how to teach and ferry students back and forth to school in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how students will attend their classes.
The school board outlined three plans for reopening during the July 7 meeting, two of which could potentially be put into action following the most recent reopening guidance issued by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on July 14.

Safety and learning

JCPS Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan spoke on environment and safety considerations, and Chief Education officer Angela Dill who addressed Remote Learning. 
“We are planning for every possible scenario, either 100 percent in-person learning, digital learning or a hybrid of both, depending on the student’s individual needs,” Buchanan said at the start of his presentation. “If there is a family that doesn’t want to send their child to school because of pandemic fears, we will support that 100 percent. We will accommodate that student online.”

The ABCs of teaching

Dill outlined three possible scenarios for Jackson County’s schools when students return on Aug. 17. 
Plan A, which involved 100 percent in-person learning where all students return to school for classroom learning, is likely not feasible given the most recent guidance from the governor's office.
Plan B involves a hybrid curriculum plan that combines both in-person and online learning.
“There are a lot of pieces for remote learning,” Dill said. “Remote learning encompasses all learning plans.”
The hybrid plan includes more extensive social distancing and reduction in class size with some learning being done online. 
Plan C involves 100 percent online learning, which students utilized after Governor Cooper ordered the sheltering in place directive in March and closed all schools. 
Under the July 14 guidelines set forth by Cooper's office, this option would be allowed if Jackson County leaders chose to switch to an all-remote model.
None of this is set in stone though, the school district’s Chief Education Officer told board members. 
“Plans change,” she said. “We feel we need a starting point and an ending point so we have something set in place.” 

Sub-divided classes

Dill said social distancing makes the logistics of providing a curriculum for the school’s nearly 225 students a challenge. With the six-foot social distancing requirement, class sizes fall from about 20 students to between 7-10 students with rotating class days during the week. 
Under Plan B, the model most closely aligned with Governor Cooper's July 14 release, Jackson County students from grades Pre-K to fifth grade would attend daily classes.  Middle- and high-school students would alternate weeks in school and weeks doing remote study.
“We could rotate students in each grade to receive in-person teaching,” she said.
Remaining students would supplement their learning online on the weeks they are not receiving in-person instruction.

Making schools ready

Buchanan said the logistics of preparing schools and busing students to and from school each day keeping compliance with social distance directives would be an unprecedented challenge.
“Parents, staff members, medical professionals and the health department assisted in formulating the re-entry plan,” he said. “The teachers did a great job in the spring. We were on spring break and then went into isolation.”
Buchanan encouraged board members to not consider 2021 a throw-away year.
“We do have a tremendous staff with a lot of heart,” he said. “There will be a lot of training when the kids return to school as we prepare for this unprecedented event.”
Changes students and teachers can expect to see this fall include making school hallways social distancing compliant with one-way directional markings marking corridors like what has been put in place in supermarkets to minimize student interaction when moving between classes. 
There was also talk of closed water fountains, replaced by touch-free water bottle fillers.
“We are encouraging reusable bottles brought by students,” Buchanan said. “Water fountains are off limits. We will provide reusable bottles and cups, personal protection supplies and hand sanitizer for students to use.” 
The schools will undergo the normal cleaning, but with extra steps on top of that and a system of checkpoints.
“I can’t stress enough that we understand the importance of our buildings being cleaned, cleaned regularly and cleaned thoroughly,” Buchanan.

Transportation

Buchanan said one of the biggest challenges the school district faces is how to handle transportation. 
There are three options for bus travel to ferry children back and forth to school, and each follows a degree of social distancing. 
“If we follow the social distancing model guidelines, six feet between each students, we can fit seven kids per bus,” Buchanan said. “If we follow the every-other-seat model we can accommodate 11 kids per bus. If we do one child per seat – 22 kids per bus.”
The number of routes it would take to satisfy these models would go up exponentially. 
“On the one-child per seat, bus routes could double, triple or quadruple. Masks must be worn by all students. If we opt for no masks for Pre-K-to-5 students it would require social distancing and cut the kids per bus down to seven.”
As it stands, doing one child per seat would spike a $147,000 per month cost increase in busing expense, totaling $1.5 million per year. The district’s total transportation budget for the year is $1 million, Buchanan told the board.
Buchanan reassured the board, the buses will be safe for travel.
“Buses will be cleaned and sanitized after each use,” he said. “Students will be screened for temperatures prior to accessing the bus.” 
Also, a second adult will accompany the bus driver on routes.
“Bus drivers do such much, we can’t ask them to do one more thing in making sure all students have masks, hand sanitizer and checking for temperature,” Buchanan said.
The full guidelines and requirements set forth in the July 14 announcement from the governor's office can be viewed online now.