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Federal and State Governments Continue Push to Reopen Schools; Watauga County School Board to Meet Monday Afternoon to Continue Discussion

By Nathan Ham

North Carolina is much like every other state across the country, and even the federal government, in pushing for reopening public schools to try and bring a little more normalcy to the lives of children throughout the country.

In Watauga County, the schools are still operating under the state’s Plan B guidelines where schools are open at half capacity where half of the students attend school on Monday and Tuesday and the other half attend on Thursday and Friday. Monday’s school board meeting could change how that process works for the rest of the spring semester.

“The board will discuss COVID-19 metrics and what, if any, changes need to be made to that current schedule,” said Garrett Price, the Director of Communications for Watauga County Schools. “The meeting will be open to the public, but limited to 10 people in person because of statewide restrictions.”

The meeting will also be streamed on the Watauga County Schools YouTube channel at 1 p.m. and the general public can submit their comments for the board by emailing them to superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott at eliotts@wataugaschools.org.

“Monday’s work session will provide our board of education a dedicated time to hear updates on school operations and current health metrics as they determine how and when to increase student attendance at school,” said Dr. Elliott. “They will hear updates from me on our lessons learned and the effectiveness of our prevention efforts, from lead school nurse Shelly Klutz on our positive cases and our contact investigation protocols, and rom AppHealthCare director Jennifer Greene on current local health metrics. Specifically, the board will be focused on the current schedule for our K-5 students and considerations for how and when to move forward with increasing in-person instruction in those grade levels. I anticipate it will be a positive meeting filled with lots of encouraging information.”

On Wednesday, the North Carolina House and Senate passed Senate Bill 37, which would require an in-person learning option for all K-12 students in the state. Governor Cooper has declined to sign the bill so far.

“Parents and children have waited long enough for some level of certainty in their public education. I hope that Gov. Cooper chooses not to drag this out for another week and a half. This is a two-page bill that’s been in the public for weeks. If a veto is coming, then do it now so the legislature can vote to override. If the Governor intends to let it become law, then he should sign it instead of taking the politically expedient option of dragging this out to the end of the month just so he can tell the far-left NCAE he didn’t attach his signature to it,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, who represents Watauga County in the N.C. Senate and is the co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

After the bill was passed by the legislature, Gov. Cooper issued a statement, saying “children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies. This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.”

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore touted the importance of the bi-partisan legislation following the vote held to pass SB37.

“There is broad agreement that the number one priority for North Carolinians today, the most important shared goal that we can accomplish together right now, is reopening public schools for struggling young students,” Speaker Moore said Wednesday. “I urge the Governor to sign this bill because parents, healthcare experts, and educators agree that safely returning students to the classroom as soon as possible is vital for educational and economic recovery in North Carolina.”

The bill does require each county in North Carolina to offer an in-person learning option, however, it does not require that each student goes back to school in an in-person format. Remote learning would remain an option whether Gov. Cooper ultimately signs the bill or not.

At the national level, President Joe Biden has set a goal for his administration to have most K-8 schools open during his first 100 days in office. On February 12, President Biden issued a statement providing an update on that goal:

Shortly before taking office, I set an ambitious but achievable goal of opening most K-8 schools by the end of my first 100 days. I’ve said all along that this is a national imperative — one that can only be achieved if Congress provides states and communities with the resources they need to get it done safely through the American Rescue Plan.

It is also a goal we can meet if we follow the science. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, has provided the best available scientific evidence on how to reopen schools safely.    

These scientific guidelines tell us that our schools are safer when we have appropriate distancing in classrooms and on school buses, when masks are worn consistently and properly, when handwashing occurs regularly, and when we are able to effectively respond to cases through testing and contact tracing, and when we follow other recommended steps.

To meet these guidelines, some schools will need more teachers and support staff to ensure smaller class sizes, more buses and bus drivers to transport our kids safely, more spaces to conduct in-person instruction, and more protective equipment, school cleaning services, and physical alterations to reduce the risk of spread of the virus.

These needs cost money. But the cost of keeping our children, families, and educators safe is nothing when compared with the cost of inaction. Today, an entire generation of young people is on the brink of being set back up to a year or more in their learning. We are already seeing rising mental health concerns due in part to isolation. Educational disparities that have always existed grow wider each day that our schools remain closed and remote learning isn’t the same for every student. Our educators are frontline workers who are doing everything they can to protect and educate our students, despite a lack of resources and as districts face budget crises that risk education jobs. Moms — and dads — are exiting the workforce in astonishing numbers in order to care for and manage the school experience for their children at home, hindering their own opportunities and further undermining the health of our economy. 

We have sacrificed so much in the last year. But science tells us that if we support our children, educators, and communities with the resources they need, we can get kids back to school safely in more parts of the country sooner.

When my Secretary of Education is confirmed, I will task him with working alongside school administrators, educators, and parents to safely accelerate the process of school reopenings. As many states continue to follow the CDC’s recommendation to prioritize teachers for vaccination, I urge all states to follow suit.

And given the irreversible costs of inaction, Congress needs to pass the American Rescue Plan right away — for our children, our families, our community, and our country.

We know what we need to do.

We need to move fast.