Schools are on the cusp of entering into unchartered territory. Lincoln County Schools will be opening to students on Aug. 17 under so-called “plan B” which allows schools to reopen with reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This plan is based on guidance received by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.  Under this plan, schools will offer in-person and remote learning for students.  Parents will be able to request that their children be involved in only remote learning.

While Cooper’s office and the department of health have provided guidance, school districts have been approaching preparation differently. 

In an effort to understand the nuances of school openings in the midst of a pandemic, Freebird McKinney, the State Board of Education’s director of legislative affairs and community outreach and Lincoln County N.C. Rep. Jason Saine toured G.E. Massey Elementary School and Lincolnton High School on Friday to get an idea of the district’s preparation for school opening.

Elementary Schools across the district just wrapped up their summer jump start program which gave teachers, administrators and staff some insight as to what they would need to do in order to prepare for schools reopening. PPE for students, teachers and staff is just a small portion of what’s needed to be in place for school reopening. For example, students can no longer hang their backpacks in a communal area like they did the past, they can no longer share art supplies and they can’t eat together in the cafeteria.

“I’m here not only to hear about re-entry and re-opening but also how jump start went,” McKinney said. “I’m seeing from a policy perspective how the state board might be able to advocate in certain ways and to ally with local representatives and join forces with them. I want to gain an understanding as how our decisions and expectations look like on a local level. My job is to spend a morning like this to continue to build bridges with local superintendents and bring that back to the state board and share it with them, so they have a deeper understanding as well.”

Lincolnton High School was also visited. Unlike the elementary schools, the middle and high schools have been completely closed down to students since March. High Schools have their own set of challenges which Lincolnton High School principal Preston Clarke and his staff have been working through. Clarke is entering into his second school year as principal of LHS.

Something as simple as how students enter the building had to be addressed and adjusted to protect students. At LHS, ninth graders will enter through the main entrance, with the 10th through 12th graders entering through different sections of the school. Once they come in, they’ll have their temperatures checked and questions will be asked about their health status. Instead of going to homeroom, which is done by alphabet and will put too many students in the same room, they’ll go directly into their first period class.

“That’ll be a challenge, but we’ll get through it,” Preston said. “Dismissal will be a challenge too. We’ll have to go back to an elementary-style routine which is a little more structured to control the flow of kids.”

There are signs up throughout the hallways at the school which will direct students in a one-way manner throughout the school, which will be an adjustment for everyone in the school. One of the biggest freshman classes that LHS has ever had is slated to come in this year, according to Clarke. 

“I feel like we are in a position to be as accommodating as we can be to students and parents,” he said. “We’re not going to say, ‘your name starts with a J you’re not supposed to be here today so find your way home.’ It’s a trying time and we’re in the role of customer service. We want to make sure we do all we can to ease the anxiety of parents, students and teachers. We’ve asked our teachers to be a sea of calm because our kids have a lot of anxiety as well. We’re around 63% reduced lunch so our kids have a lot of needs and we haven’t seen them since March. We don’t know what’s going to come back through those doors, so it’s really important we focus on the well-being of our kids.”

Saine asked if there was a heightened awareness to those children who may have additional needs, which Clarke confirmed that there was. 

“It goes back to relationships, which is hard to establish during remote learning,” he said. “It’s important to be out in the halls with them. You want to be there when you meet them at the door because it’s a chance to engage them, six feet apart.”

The needs of children change daily, Clarke added, they go home, and something happens – it really tells you about the place of public schools. If there’s a need, it starts here. 

“Our folks from DPI and the state school board want to make sure I’m a part of this too,” Saine said. “It’ll help us understand how our schools are doing as they gear up in this entirely changed climate. We know it’s a challenge, each school system has made their own decisions, and no one has the right way to do it, they just do the best they can with the information they’ve got. It’ll also help me understand as a legislator and appropriator when we go back in to look at more CARES funding knowing where we can spend dollars best or best allocate it. We all want to do what’s best for kids and make sure whatever they need to get back to somewhat normal.”

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