Based on guidance from local health officials, the Watauga County Board of Education voted Tuesday to begin the 2020-21 school year with 9 weeks of remote instruction for students.
School officials announced what Superintendent Scott Elliott called a “modified Plan B that helps us phase our students and staff back into school while also doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of our community.” Previously, school officials announced that students will return under a 2×3 Flex plan where students attend school in person for two days and work remotely for three days.
“Over the past several weeks, we’ve invested a great deal of time and energy into plans for reopening our schools on the Governor’s Plan B schedule. Of all the plans available to us, Plan B is the most challenging to implement but it gives us the best opportunity to meet the many different needs of our students.” Elliott stated. “Unfortunately, right now our local public health trends continue to move in the wrong direction. After extensive conversations with our local public health partners and after hearing the concerns of many of our staff members and parents, I think this modified plan gives us our best chance to get students back into school safely as soon as possible.”
Elliott explained that all students in Kindergarten through 12th grade on the 2×3 Flex plan will start the school year in an all remote format on August 17. If local conditions allow, students will return to in person instruction under Plan B on the 2×3 Flex plan on October 19.
Families who applied for the all online Watauga Virtual Academy (WVA) will be contacted by school personnel by August 5th and given the option to decline WVA if they have changed their mind since applying. The WVA students will also begin on August 17 and will remain in the WVA through the end of first semester.
“We realize the change to remote learning for the first nine weeks will cause some families to rethink their enrollment in the virtual academy,” Elliott said. “We need to know no later than August 5 if those families want to switch back to the 2×3 Flex plan now that we are starting remotely. Once those decisions are made, we ask families to stick with those plans for at least the first semester. We will not be able to reschedule students, teachers, and courses once we make those decisions based on start of year numbers.”
Elliott went on to explain that, while the school system is starting the year remotely, it is not exactly adopting the state’s all remote Plan C protocols.
“We will continue to operate under the Plan B safety protocols but with an emphasis on serving the students most in need of school based services while most other students are at home full time,” Elliott said. “Teachers and staff will work from the school building to ensure they have access to all their resources, time to plan together, and the opportunity to see small numbers of students as needed.”
School officials will allow small numbers of students to come to the school site by appointment to receive specialized assistance and support. These likely will include support for students with disabilities, students who need counseling and therapeutic services and students who need access to high speed internet to download assignments and upload completed work.
The school system will also allow students in each of the district’s eight Pre-K programs to attend school in person.
Board of Education Chairman Ron Henries praised the revised plan.
“We think this plan strikes the right balance between protecting our staff and students while also providing some much needed services to students who really do suffer through remote instruction. I applaud Superintendent Elliott and his staff for listening to all the concerns and considering all the options. There are some students who need support that can only be provided at school, and hopefully conditions will allow those students to be served in a safe way.”
Elliott commented on the monumental task ahead.
“The guidance we have received from the Department of Health and Human Services is intended to help protect our students and staff, but it is going to be difficult to implement,” Elliott said. “Also, the guidance seems to be changing daily. This phased reopening will give our staff the opportunity to slowly implement those protocols while giving public health officials more time to monitor changing conditions in the community.”
The decision comes after a recommendation from Watauga County’s local health department, AppHealthCare, that schools consider delaying the start to in-person instruction for students while the county monitors what has been an upward trend in COVID-19 cases.
“We continue to see our numbers of positive COVID cases going up,” stated AppHealthCare Director Jennnifer Greene. “While we currently have a lower impact from cases than in other areas of the state, these are the kinds of decisions which will hopefully keep our community from becoming one of those hot spots.”
“Superintendent Elliott and I agree that the best thing for students is for them to be in school. We are seeing many different health concerns emerging among children in our community because of this interruption to their lives. School is a safe and healthy place where so many needs are met. We will continue to support the school system to move forward with their plan to get students back into the school buildings as soon as possible.”
Greene also acknowledged the COVID cases among young adults aged 18 to 24 and concerns about the return of students to Appalachian State in the coming weeks. “The nine week remote start for the school system will allow us to monitor changing community spread of the virus and determine the impact on our school families.”
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the board’s decision to begin schools with a period of remote learning was difficult, but necessary in light of the county’s COVID-19 metrics and guidance from AppHealthCare.
Elliott said that while the system preferred to have students back in school buildings, he was confident that lessons learned over the remote learning period this Spring would ensure that students would have better experience in the coming nine weeks.
“When we entered remote learning in March, our teachers had only a few days to prepare,” Elliott said. “Given that immense time constraint and workload, they did an outstanding job. As we go into remote learning this fall, I’m confident that our teachers and students will be even better prepared to have a positive and productive remote learning experience.”