It was almost a year ago that the Lincoln County Board of Education and the then superintendent, Dr. Lory Morrow, sat in their meeting room at the administrative building and discussed school closure due to the pandemic. At that time, only 32 people had tested positive in North Carolina and there were no reported deaths. How things have changed in more ways than one. The Board of Education now has three new members and there’s a new superintendent in place.

LCS elementary students returned to Plan A, in-person instruction five days a week on October 19, 2021. Middle and high school students have remained on Plan B which is hybrid learning, students attend school in person two or three days a week and two days are virtual learning. That’s going to change next Monday, March 22 when all students, except for those who desire to remain remote, are required to return to school for in-person learning five days a week.

At a specially called meeting held Monday morning which lasted approximately 30 minutes, a portion of which (approximately three minutes) was spent discussing a contract to reinsulate HVAC pipes at two sites, the board of education voted 4 to 2 to return to Plan A for all students effective March 22. Board members Joan Avery and D. Todd Wulfhorst voted against the decision. 

The meeting was called pursuant to a bipartisan deal which was reached last Wednesday to reopen public schools for in-person learning. Senate Bill 220 requires all schools to offer full-time, face to face learning for elementary students and gives districts the choice of Plan A or Plan B for middle and high school students. Previously, they were limited to Plan B or C. Schools have to offer a remote learning option to those students who want it.

Avery asked about the 21 days that the districts have to wait before the bill becomes law.

“Legislation reads that we have up to 21 days to implement this change and that we can move quicker than the 21 days,” LCS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Allen said. “We’re going off the recommendations of our attorney that we can start sooner.”

Eric Eaker, LCS chief of operations confirmed that transportation was no issue because, under Plan A they were no longer required to keep one student per seat in for 6-12 students and could go back to normal capacity.

“We’ll use our video system to do contact tracing on the buses if need be plus students will be required to sit in assigned seats which will help with that as well,” he said. “We built our routes so that if the switch was made, we could go back to our regular routes.”

Food services is a bit more of a problem because the schools aren’t currently stocked for all students being back in school.

“Reopening on the 22nd would be from difficult to very difficult,” Shelly Rhyne, child nutrition director said. “I did rough calculations and even if you take away the grab and go meals which we wouldn’t be able to operate if we go back to five days a week, you’re still looking at over 7,000 extra meals through the week. Obviously trying to get in the supplies and the food is going to be challenging. Staff is going to be a challenge as well.”

When school started, there were several vacancies that Rhyne said she purposely didn’t fill and there have been additional people who have left or are out for medical reasons. 

“Filling positions has been difficult,” she said. 

Eaker said that he had some vacancies to fill as well in custodial staff. Board member Christina Sutton asked if teachers were prepared to pick up full-time in-person learning so quickly. Dr. Heath Belcher, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction said that when the district switched to synchronous learning in January, teachers had been working under the assumption that if full-time, in-person learning became available, it would happen immediately. 

“For those students that are remote and those who may be on quarantine, we’d still provide the live instruction from the classroom so there’s no change there,” he said.

Board member Heather Rhyne said that they needed to be prepared for kinks to work through just like there was when the elementary school students returned full-time. Belcher said he didn’t expect any major problems.

The board has to submit a plan detailing their reopening plan to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, however the DHHS cannot veto the plan.

“We feel that except for the child nutrition piece, we can be ready to open next Monday,” Allen said. “Would it be better for child nutrition of we waited another week, yes. Would it be better to wait until after spring break, yes, but we think we can pull something off with some parent understanding and communication that food will be limited to maybe one entre. Even with using grab and go meals, we’d probably be about 7,000 meals short and that’s what she’s trying to acquire this week.”

Allen further detailed the plan to have more students eat in the cafeteria rather than at their desks to cut back on pre-portioning of meals because there are no longer any social distancing requirements, not six feet of social distancing, just minimal social distancing.

“The 22nd is the soonest, but there will be hiccups and the biggest will be child nutrition,” he said. “With the six feet barrier being taken away, we’re going to have to figure out a way for our teachers to cluster kids together in pods and keep that pod mentality in check, even in the classroom. If we can at least cluster kids, it’ll be easier to contact trace and if we have to quarantine, we can quarantine just that pod. We’ll still control where the kids sit.”

Avery commented that she thought they were pushing it too much as far as social distancing and getting away from COVID and she worried about children coming back after Easter break and potentially spreading COVID. 

“I don’t want the kids coming back after Easter and having another COVID outbreak situation,” she said.

Wulfhorst asked about the total vaccination rate for the staff and was told by Allen that a little less than half the staff have been vaccinated.

“If we started this after spring break, would that not give them an opportunity to be vaccinated if they chose to,” Wulfhorst said. “Secondly, would we not be that much prepared to start after spring break. One thing that we haven’t discussed is that things are going pretty well right now. Now we’re getting ready to throw everybody into the mix. Are we going to lose the last semester because we have quarantine and COVID outbreaks because we’re not ready?”

Absolutely, Allen confirmed, and child nutrition would have a better shot of having full operation. He also said that in speaking with other superintendents, one district was considering returning on the 22 or 29th but most were looking at after spring break for logistics purposes.

Board member Mark Mullen commented that when considering the social and emotional health of students, it far outweighs any potential issues than COVID.

“I don’t think we can continue to push it down the road for two weeks or two months, we need to really get kids back in school and give that social and emotional side back to them,” he said.

Sutton commented that it didn’t seem scary to send all of the kids back quicker.

“We’ve had days where there’s been no numbers reported in the school system,” she said. “Yes, the COVID numbers are still out there and they’re still high, but if we look inside the group we’re speaking about, I’m in favor of getting it done as soon as possible. I don’t want to put a burden on Shelly and her people, but I know they’ll do what they have to in order to get this done.”

I know children need to come back to school, Avery said, but I want it done as safely as it can be. Kids can come in without temperatures and still spread COVID.

“You’re pushing too fast,” she said.

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