BAKERSVILLE — The Mitchell County Board of Education unanimously approved the plan to reopen and resume schools for the 2020-21 school year.
Superintendent Chad Calhoun said the plan, which was presented to the board at a special session on Wednesday, Aug. 5, was a group effort and enforced the idea that it wasn’t perfect.
“I won’t say that everyone in here agrees with this 100 percent,” Calhoun said. “I don’t agree 100 percent with this plan. But it’s a consensus. And when you have to work with groups, you have to come up with a consensus.”
Reopening begins with a two-week transition period from Aug. 17 through Aug. 28 with different letters of last names attending school on different days. For example, students with the last names A-D will attend school Aug. 17 and Aug. 24.
According to the document detailing the plan, this two-week period is intended “to help students meet and build relationships with their teachers, learn how to use their new devices and establish safety procedures.”
During this period, on Friday, Aug. 21, students who opted for the Virtual Academy K-12 option will schedule individual meetings to be held on the circle at Mitchell High School for device pick up, training and paperwork. If students cannot or don’t pick up their devices on Aug. 21, Friday, Aug. 28 will be a makeup day for virtual student pick up and training.
Beginning Aug. 31, K-5 students who opted for face-to-face education will begin attending classes five days a week, all day. Students in K-5 who opted for virtual academy and grades 6-12 will begin remote education during this time.
Some students will be exceptions to this. Grades 6-12 special population students will meet in person and grades 9-12 face-to-face required courses will be scheduled for meetings at MHS. Additionally, students in grades 6-12 without adequate internet or those who need additional academic support will be offered sign-up times and days to download assignments and receive instructional help.
Calhoun said while they will offer the virtual academy for the entire school year, their goal is to have students return to face-to-face instruction sooner rather than later. In grades 6-8, he said they hope to return to face-to-face after the first nine weeks on Oct. 19 and have high school students return after the first semester on Jan. 4, 2021. However, to do this, he said they will have to be cautious.
“We’re easing in on this thing,” Calhoun said. “I’m ready to get everybody back in school, but we want this to go well and we’re going to follow the procedures and guidelines so we can get students back in school sooner rather than later. Let’s do it safely.”
During the presentation to the board, Executive Director of Facilities Kim Hodshon went over some of the health precautions the school system is taking in terms of face-to-face instruction.
Five reusable cloth masks will be provided to students in the two week transition period. Both students and teachers will be required to wear cloth face coverings, but they will have “mask breaks” every 30 minutes. These breaks will last 10 minutes and students will have to stay six feet apart during the break period.
The school will also practice health screenings each day as students and staff arrive at school, where they will be asked three health assessment questions and have their temperature checked. A student’s temperature cannot exceed 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit before entering the school building and any student who exhibits COVID-19 symptoms during the school day will be isolated in a designated “isolation room” until they can be picked up.
Classrooms will be rearranged to have six feet between desks and social distancing will be required in every part of schools, including cafeterias and hallways. There will be floor markings and signs to remind students to keep a safe distance.
To maintain a social and emotional connection with students, both face-to-face and virtual students will engage in a daily check-in, which will also help account for attendance.
“Students will check-in using emojis in the lower grades and in the upper grades it will be more statements, telling the teachers how they feel, what they like and what they are enjoying about the day,” said Executive Director of Accountability Jennifer Gregory. “That will be a good way for them to take attendance as well as help students with mental health concerns and their feelings.”
Since the state’s announcement about schools, Calhoun has said multiple times his biggest concern was the school buses. Calhoun said most buses were already at full capacity, carrying more than 50 students, but now they must function at half capacity with only 20 to 22 students.
To encourage more parents to drop their children off and pick them up, the school has provided a larger time window for students to be dropped off in the morning and at the end of the day. Schools will also release car riders and drivers before bus riders.
To see specific drop-off times for each school, please refer to the chart next to this story.
Executive Director of Transportation Mark Hughes explained in more detail how buses will function.
Drivers will take their own temperatures prior to boarding the bus and record their temperature on their pre-trip inspection form daily. All students will wear face masks on the bus and only one passenger per seat is allowed except for immediate family members.
Bus drivers will be provided a cleaning kit and will disinfect the vehicles following their morning and afternoon routes.
Additionally, windows will need to be ajar for natural air flow. Hughes noted inclement weather, like rain or cold temperatures, will be exceptions to this as well as allergies.
Calhoun said the school system would be checking in with the health department every two weeks to ensure proper precautions are being taken and to alter the plan as needed.
“I think the school system understands very well that we might have to make adjustments in the future depending on what happens,” Director of Toe River Health District Diane Creek said. “None of us have ever been through this before. We all have to be flexible, the administrators, the health department, the teachers, the parents and the students. It won’t work unless we are all committed to making it work and being kind.”
Creek said she is satisfied with the school system’s plan, adding it’s as thorough as it can be given the circumstances.
“As Chad said in the meeting, there’s no perfect way to do this,” Creek said. “I think they’ve done very well. They’re going into it with their eyes wide open. They’ve got a good base and I’ve think they’ve spent a lot of time planning it.”
To watch the full presentation of the plan, visit the News-Journal Facebook page at facebook.com/MitchellNewsJournal to watch a full video of the meeting posted on Wednesday, Aug. 5.