Ocracoke School to Stay Online Until 2021

Sundae Horn
The school board met remotely to discuss in-person school.
The school board met remotely to discuss in-person school.

The Hyde County Board of Education voted to stay in Plan C remote learning.

On Tuesday, October 6th, the Hyde County Board of Education met for two meetings; the first was a special information session about the possible scenarios of returning to in-person classes and the second was their regular monthly meeting in which they reviewed Plan C remote learning and planned to decide how to proceed in the 2nd grading period. In all, these dedicated public servants spent 5+ hours listening to an amazing amount of information and making difficult decisions. 

At the August BOE meeting, the board voter 5–0 to begin the school year in Plan C distance (online) learning for all students at least through the 1st grading period that ends October 29th. 

On yesterday's agenda was a review of the distance learning in place, a review of options for Plan B hybrid (some in-person, some virtual) and Plan A (in-person learning) – and a decision about the 2nd grading period from October 29th-January 17th.

The board again voted 5–0 in favor of remaining in Plan C through 2nd grading period. 

(Note: per Governor Roy Cooper's statewide plan for NC public schools during COVID-19, any student can opt to do remote learning all year no matter what the school is doing. This requires that teachers and staff have some time scheduled during the school day to teach their online students, even if they are also teaching in-person.)

(The board also approved plans for the new Ocracoke School building to replace the one damaged by Dorian. More on that later.)

Kudos to Superintendent Steve Basnight, who gave a thorough 2-hour presentation on all the ways school could happen with COVID restrictions and requirements in place. He shared data from parent and staff surveys, and information about bus requirements (for the mainland), cleaning and maintenance requirements, ventilation requirements, health department updates, the availability of substitute teachers, and the wellness checks that all students and staff would do before entering the building. 

Parents were asked if they would choose to send their kids back to school in person for the 2nd grading period. On Ocracoke for Pre-K–5th grade, 42% said no and 55% said yes and 3% weren't sure. For grades 6-12, the percentages were closer: 53% yes, 47% no. Compare that to Mattamuskeet where 67% of Pre-K–5th grade parents said yes to sending their kids back. Only 54% of Mattamuskeet middle and high school parents said yes. In any Plan B or Plan A scenario, the 1/3 to 1/2 of children who were kept at home would receive virtual instruction from their teachers.

Basnight also shared 7 Plan B hybrid scenarios ranging from majority-remote learning with some small group instruction to part-day or part-week in-person instruction to mostly in-school classes. And there's always Plan A to consider: everyone goes to school. Basnight also shared what other eastern NC counties are choosing to do, which is a hodge-podge of Plans A, B, and C.

Staff would do symptom checks every day before students can enter school
Staff would do symptom checks every day before students can enter school

There's also the issue about how to accommodate teachers with high-risk factors; Basnight said eleven Hyde County staff members stated they don't want to return to in-person classes because of health concerns. He said one possibility would be for the teacher to be home (teaching remotely) while the students would be in class with a teacher's assistant or substitute teachers.

Here's my takeaway: oh, my goodness, in-person mid-pandemic schooling is A LOT OF WORK. 

I'm not talking about teaching, which is always a lot of work, but all the really *extra* extras: temperature taking, asking kids about symptoms, handwashing (SO much handwashing), mask wearing, hand sanitizing, social distancing, limiting the number of students in the hallways and bathrooms, lack of recess, P.E. classes that limit shared equipment and don't allow kids to get closer than six feet to each other, deep-cleaning the classrooms, keeping kids in their seats and not letting them touch their faces, kids not sharing supplies, SO many Clorox wipes, no assemblies, teachers and staff meet kids outside to keep them from congregating and interacting before and after school, no playground use, no school visitors, no field trips or performances, no singing, pre-packaged snacks served directly to students..... and that's just what I wrote down. 

One of many slides describing rules
One of many slides describing rules

Everyone wants to go back to "normal," but the requirements for COVID safety make it clear: the new normal is really, really different from what we imagine when we think of sending kids back to school.

Mr. Basnight explained that the school board is covered by a limited liability policy from the state, but only if all protocols are followed. 

Angie Todd, who represents Ocracoke on the BOE, was the first board member to speak on this topic at the official meeting. She had two mostly rhetorical questions to ask of herself and the other board members:

"What has changed from August to now?" and "How many lives are acceptable to lose?"

She also pointed out that Ocracoke doesn't have a building that will be ready by October 29th. The lower floor of the elementary building is being repaired, but the estimate is early November for it to be ready. The modular unit on the back Road side of the school, which will serve as a temporary school until the new building is complete, is not quite ready either. 

"Our teachers have been jumping through hoops for a year," Angie said. "I don't think it's fair to give them another hoop to jump through to make in-person school work when it's going to be extremely difficult."

Basnight had a lot of praise for teachers.

"They've done a phenomenal job," he said. "Distance learning works if we do it right and well. The teachers have to make it work, and they've been successful at it. 

Angie agreed. "Students have worked hard to find a rhythm and a new normal. This can work and it is working."

Board member Aleta Cox agree with Angie and added, "All these plans spelled out – we need to let the teachers see the options and stay with what we're doing in the meantime."

Board member Lindsey Mooney remained unconvinced about the need to remain in Plan C. 

"Folks are going to Wal-mart, all over town, with no masks on," he said. "They go to Food Lion, and they're going to travel over the holidays. [COVID] is still going to be here."

Board member Thomas Whitaker argued that the school board "needs to do everything we can to keep our children safe."

Board chair Randy Etheridge could appreciate both sides of the argument. "Life is imperfect and we need to adapt to it," he said. "But I agree we need to remain where we are. While we stay virtual, and other districts are being more aggressive [about moving to Plan B or A), we can learn from their successes and maybe from their mistakes, too." 

Basnight gave a shout-out to the 21st Century Learning Center program that (during pre-COVID times) provided after-school tutoring and enrichment at Ocracoke and Mattamuskeet schools. This year, the program staff are working with teachers to provide supplemental support and virtual tutoring.

"They can pick up where the teachers left off of a lesson," he said. "[Online] tutoring is happening now, and it's invaluable to our students."

It was Angie who made the motion to remain in Plan C until the end of the 2nd grading period. Thomas Whitaker seconded her motion. It passed with all in favor, though Lindsey Mooney made the comment that he was only voting that way because Ocracoke school "is not ready to go." 

The vote was met with a "Ding!" from one of the board member's phones. "Well, the texts messages are blowing up, aren't they!," Basnight remarked. Indeed, they did. 

The board also voted to allow Driver's Ed in-car instruction to happen with these limits: one student at a time in the car with the instructor, accompanied by parent or guardian, everyone masked. (I've seen some Facebook comments to the effect that if they can do Driver's Ed, they can do in-person school, but it is, of course, much different, and doesn't involve large groups.)

Speaking of Facebook, if this article isn't enough for you, you can watch the entire 5+ hours on the Hyde County Public Schools Facebook page. You can also read all the comments from the audience at home. 

The board tabled the decision about school sports until their November meeting. 



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