ABSS votes to return to in-person learning in March; will review plan again in February

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 12, at its monthly Work Session, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education voted to approve an updated plan for return to school presented by Superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson. ABSS will continue to monitor the effects of COVID-19, and will review this plan again on February 9 with the possibility of further altering the plan, including possibly going with in-person learning the remainder of the academic year. Students will not return to school for in-person learning on February 1st. Students and staff will remain on their current schedules for now. According to the plan approved by the ABSS board on January 12, beginning on March 1, elementary schools will implement a cohort model for grades K-5 students that have selected to return to in-person learning. Benson added that ABSS would like to maintain what they are currently doing with Pre-K and adapted curriculum students. Parents who wish to keep their children in virtual learning will have that option. 

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 12, at its monthly Work Session, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education voted to approve an updated plan for return to school presented by Superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson. ABSS will continue to monitor the effects of COVID-19, and will review this plan again on February 9 with the possibility of further altering the plan, including possibly going with in-person learning the remainder of the academic year. 

Students will not return to school for in-person learning on February 1st. Students and staff will remain on their current schedules for now. According to the plan approved by the ABSS board on January 12, beginning on March 1, elementary schools will implement a cohort model for grades K-5 students that have selected to return to in-person learning. Benson added that ABSS would like to maintain what they are currently doing with Pre-K and adapted curriculum students. Parents who wish to keep their children in virtual learning will have that option. 

Beginning on March 8, middle and high schools will implement a cohort model for grades 6-12 students that have selected to return to in-person learning. Students will attend school in person two days (Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday). Wednesday will be remote learning for all students. Families that want to continue with remote learning may do so.

“By this time, most of you are probably aware that the Alamance-Burlington School System Board of Education approved some changes to our plan for returning to in-person learning for students who prefer that option,” said Dr. Benson. 

Benson indicated that teachers are going to be in the 1B group of vaccinations, which also includes residents over the age of 65. 

“We learned over the winter break that teachers will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine sooner than we anticipated,” Benson explained. “In addition, in surveying families, a larger number of families are choosing in-person learning for their students. Our continuing commitment is to keeping students and staff as safe as possible while on campus. And in keeping that in mind in light of larger numbers of students that would like to return for in-person learning.” 

“They (teachers) are up next (for vaccines),” added Dr. Benson. “And as such, we feel that delaying in-person learning until March increases the likelihood that they will be able to receive that vaccine. We feel like that’s an important thing to take into consideration - particularly for our teachers that have underlying health conditions.” 

The superintendent revealed through surveys that more ABSS parents wish to have their students return to the classrooms this academic year than remain in virtual settings. Meals will continue to be provided for students, but instead of being distributed along established bus routes, they will be provided at community pickup locations beginning March 1. 

“What we found is a larger percentage of parents looking to have their students return to in-person learning, which creates some challenges for us in terms of maintaining things like social distancing in our schools. We’re committed to meeting health and safety requirements set forth by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” Benson explained. 

Benson mentioned that there will be technology available that will allow teachers to work with students both in-person and remotely. Cameras and monitors will assist teachers with students both in the classroom, and on their computers at home. 

At the elementary school level (Kindergarten through Fifth Grade), to ensure proper social distancing for staff and students, the children will attend two days a week, with Wednesday a remote day for all students. Instruction will be teacher-directed, with independent work taking place two days of the week within the cohort model. Some of the examples of safety protocols for social distancing include one-way stairwells and hallways whenever possible, and plexiglass dividers on tables, among others. In-person hours will be from 7:50 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.. Virtual students will have specific times to log in.

For secondary schools (middle and high school), students with last names from A through K will report on Mondays and Tuesdays, with students with last names from L through Z reporting on Thursdays and Fridays. As with elementary students, Wednesday will be a universal remote day. Additional safety protocols, including coded dots on seats to allow cleaning between classes, will be in place. Student hours are 10:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. each day, regardless of whether it’s an in-person or virtual day, in order to better accommodate transportation logistics. 

“In discussing with staff, if we get wait too late into March, we’re getting into Spring Break. We think there’s going to be a diminished return on having our kids back (after March),” Benson added. 

The School Board nearly voted to suspend all in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year. But by a contested 4-3 vote, a motion to remain online for the remainder of the spring semester failed.

Emotions ran high as the School Board debated the merits of returning to school versus staying in-person through the remainder of the year, with varying opinions expressing the divide among members. 

“How long are we going to continue to kick this can down the road?” said newly-elected board member Ryan Bowden. “The majority of this community wants to go back to school. And we all are sitting up here - we know exactly who is driving this board. 80 to 85 percent of the emails that we have received are from staff. I understand their frustrations.” 

“We have staff who needs that assistance and help. The frustrating part for me, when we talk about these accommodations for staff, is a lot of these recommendations are based off the CDC guidelines that were set forth. Just because you smoke, or because your BMI is at a certain threshold, you’re considered high risk,” Bowden continued. 

“The disappointing part, and the part that really burns me up, is the fact the same ones that are wanting these accommodations are the same ones that we see out in public, or we see running around on Facebook. The exact same ones. Meanwhile, we’ve got people out here who have true medical concerns. We have a majority of people who are, being honest, playing the system.” 

“We’ve got 267 of our employees who quality for telework,” Bowden continued. “That’s 13 percent of our workforce. That frustrates me that we have people out there that are taking advantage of that. Meanwhile, we’re telling these folks over here no, we can’t help you. We have got to find a way to help those people who truly have those true, legitimate health concerns. Again, we know where this is being driven from. At some point, we’ve got to quit kicking this can down the road. We’ve got to take a stance, and let’s get our kids back in the classroom.” 

Board member Wayne Beam expressed doubt that students would be able to effectively maintain social distancing in a school setting. 

“This is a constantly changing thing. This tension that we’re having, to be quite honest with you, is why some school systems have remained virtual for the rest of the school year,” Beam said. “I am still concerned about the health and safety of students and staff. I have been a middle school principal and a high school principal. I have a problem with us telling the public that we’re going to social distance. I’ve just said from the get-go, if we’re going to bring them back, I don’t think they’re going to social distance.”  

“It sounds like we’re trying to fit this round ball into this square peg,” added school board member Patsy Simpson. “And somewhere in that, we’re forgetting what our top priority is, other than educating our students. And that’s the safety of our staff and our students. With the clear growing numbers here in Alamance County, and with us just receiving another email indicating there’s an outbreak at Southern High School, where our students are testing, all of the phone calls and emails from staff members. And staff members, I’m talking about custodians to cafeteria workers to social workers, indicating that someone they’ve worked with in close proximity has tested positive. I’m just not feeling it at this point.” 

“Never, ever in my 13 years of serving on this board have I ever felt and heard (so much) from staff. The morale is extremely low,” Simpson added. “They feel unappreciated and unheard. They feel like they’re expendable. They’re scared. They’re upset. They’re concerned about their families. I just want to say to all of them that your safety is our No. 1 priority. I appreciate everything (they’re doing). I wish we could spend more time talking about the positives of online learning. I’ve been really, truly impressed with those teachers who have invited me online. I’m really upset that we don’t celebrate the wonderful things, and the teaching and learning that is taking place with virtual learning right now. The driving force is we have a pandemic in this country, and we have to do what we have to do to protect all of our students.”

“The metrics and numbers have constantly increased,” Simpson continued. “I’m just not ready now, because I fear we’re going to lose a lot of staff members. We are still waiting to see horrific numbers that are still going to come in after the Christmas holiday. We don’t know what the metrics, or the exact rate is. But to me, it has to show a steady decline in the number of cases that we have in this county. A steady decline. For that reason, I’m not comfortable sending our students and our staff back. It’s just not safe.”  

ABSS board member Tony Rose, who joined Beam and Simpson in voting to suspend all in-person learning through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, described his own family’s issues after catching COVID-19.   

“Dr. Benson, I know that you believe in educating our students. That’s why we hired you,” Rose said. “And I know you believe that students need to be in the classroom for that to happen. I applaud the tenacity that you and your staff have. You’re doing the logistics to get to the education, and I appreciate that. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for the tenacity for you and everybody to try to get our students back in the classroom. And I know not doing that feels like giving up for you. I feel for you on that.” 

“In the last decade, one thing I’ve learned to do is look into the eyes of an educator and tell when they love kids, and they want kids to learn. I see that in you and I see that in your staff. I’m concerned about the students’ virtual learning success. My own daughter, I’m concerned about it. But I also stood in my daughter’s doorway a week ago and watched her crying in her bed because she couldn’t breathe. I don’t feel like this conversation has enough in it that’s recognizing what’s happening in our community. Our schools shut down a year ago when we had almost a fourth of what’s going on in our community than what’s going on now.” 

“I’m very concerned that in the midst of what’s going on, we’re going to bring students back,” Rose continued. “I can’t, in good faith, return people into these environments, and put these types of burdens on our families. Our parents are confused. I don’t trust the communication. I believe we are looking at, throughout the rest of this spring term, a quickly approaching point of diminishing return of getting back. We can kick this can down the road a month. But if the vaccinations aren’t in place, and we don’t have the logistics in place, this window is closing.”

“I think we are at a point where we need to say we’re going to do virtual for the rest of the year, and we’re going to put all of our educational energy in that basket, and try to educate students the best we can in that environment,” Rose continued. “And quit stressing everybody out about when we’re going back. Is it going to be this month or that month? I think right now, we need to let everybody relax, exhale, and know we’re going to educate kids this way for the rest of this year, and let’s do the best we can at it. And let’s let everybody be as safe as we can while doing it. Let this bubble that has risen up in this community go down. They’re sending people to Guilford County for ventilators. We need what’s happening in our community to go down before we bring people back like this.” 

Donna Davis Westbrooks joined fellow ABSS board newcomers Bowden and Sandy Ellington Graves, as well as Board Chair Allison Gant, in voting 4-3 against suspending in-person learning through the remainder of the academic year. Chair Gant proved to be the swing vote on the matter

“Educators are adapters,” Westbrooks said. “We can adapt to any situation. If you want us to teach our kids virtually, absolutely. We’ll do it. You want us to come in two days a week? Okay, we’ll do that too. So we can do whatever you throw at us. I appreciate all they have done, and all they continue to do.”

“What about the 21,752 students (in ABSS)? What about the number of those students and those families and parents and staff members that we are not hearing from? Those who are not pushing back for us to keep our schools closed? Those are the ones that I want to bring some attention to,” added Ellington Graves. “I am aware that right now our positivity rate stands at 14.8 percent. It was 5.2 (percent) when we voted in October not to send our students back. I think as a Board, we have to set a direction for the leadership team, and for the citizens in the county.” 

“I know that the metrics are important. I know that acknowledging the risks. We have to pull all of that together with some respect and some compassion for each other - and some plain common sense - to make an informed decision. As the Board of Education, we represent the children first and foremost. And if we have families out there that their kids need or want in-person learning options, we as a District, we as a Board of Education, need to make the decision to give that to them.” 

“I just don’t think we’re being effective leaders. I’m sorry,” Ellington Graves added. “This is a great opportunity to take this extreme challenge and turn it into something positive. And we are just pushing it down the road. There are kids that are thriving, and there are kids that are not. And we cannot ignore the ones that are not. I respect the staff that doesn’t want to come back to school, but I respect the staff that does. And it’s their responsibility to perform their job.” 

When the motion was made on the floor to suspend in-person learning for the remainder of the school year, Bowden suggested that the motives were political - which drew the ire of multiple board members. 

“This is nothing but politics, and our kids are the ones suffering,” Bowden said.

“How can this be politics?” said Beam. “We are a non-partisan board.” 

“We have staff trying to drive the boat of what we’re trying to do. And we’re not focusing on our children,” Bowden said. “Our kids are the ones suffering out there. They’re the ones without a voice.” 

“In your opinion,” Beam said in response. “People have a right to vote on this issue. You have a right to voice your opinion. I was out-voted last time, 4 to 3.”

“We are seven members that are elected to this board to look at this issue through whatever prism we choose to, and to make the best leadership decision that we can make,” said Rose in response to Bowden. “I resent the remark that it is somehow political, or that someone else is driving that decision. It’s fine to have a disagreement, and it’s fine to vote however you want to do it. But don’t sit here and tell me that I have a motivation that you have no ideas about. I’m going to make a vote based on what I think is best for our community. For the health and safety of our students first, and continue the good education that is happening virtually. If you disagree, I respect that. But don’t call me political. And don’t tell me I have a motive of somebody else.” 

After the motion to suspend in-person learning was shot down by the 4-3 vote, a subsequent motion was made by Westbrooks to follow the Superintendent’s recommendation. Gant added a caveat that the Board can amend their vote in February if the COVID-19 metrics do not improve. The motion for Gant’s amendment was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Rose and Bowden voting against the measure. 

Gant, in a tearful statement, indicated that she would change her vote to all in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year on February 9 if the metrics for COVID-19 positive tests and hospitalizations do not show some measure of improvement over the next three weeks.

“We’re not able to place a timeframe on vaccinations, specifically,” Gant said. “My recommendation, my caveat is we find those metrics that make sense - a decreasing in hospitalizations, a decrease in positivity rates. I know we keep kicking the can down the road. My caveat is I believe we should take a very serious look - and I realize this is a continuing conversation - if we get to our Work Session in February, and our numbers haven’t changed, and we haven’t made progress in the vaccination arena, or we haven’t seen decreases in our community, I will bring back a motion to move to full remote. But I’m willing to try to put children back (in school).” 

“This is extremely emotional,” she continued. “I’m so sorry. We do have an obligation to our children. I care about every single teacher and child. And I have struggled with this decision. But I promise you if we’re not in a better place, you will see me come back with a motion in our February meeting (to go all virtual). We can’t change this community, and until they step up and take some responsibility. I want our teachers accommodated, as many as we can. And I want those families that want their children back in school to have that option for now. But I’m tired of losing sleep. I’m tired of constantly being on the hamster wheel. And I’m willing to try. But I also know that in my heart, if I have to change my vote again. I will. Because I do believe safety will have to trump, at some point.”  

“I don’t think we should return at all, and that’s how I voted,” said Beam. “But I also believe that we need to put it down the road as long as we can for these vaccines.”