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GCS releases back to school plans

By Yasmine Regester, Peacemaker Staff Writer / July 17, 2020

Sternberger Elementary’s repurposed cafeteria model can hold two fourth grade classes and approximately 40 desks. Photo by Yasmine Regester/CarolinaPeacemaker

Moderate social distancing, with 50 percent occupancy in school buildings, and a mix of in-person and remote learning for students returning to school in the Fall, are a few of the new rules for learning in Guilford County Schools.

N.C. Governor Roy Cooper announced on July 14 that N.C. public schools would be allowed to reopen under certain guidelines. He discussed three plan options – A, B, and C – for reopening schools, with Plan B being the one that will be followed statewide for the first five weeks of school. Cooper said the state would revisit its school reopening options, following close watch of COVID-19 trends across the state.

The Guilford County School Board of Education discussed Plan B at its July 14 meeting, focusing on three different scenarios for the district.

Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contreras recommended that the first five weeks of school open as remote learning for all students, followed by Scenario A, which would allow students in grades K-8 to attend school five days a week. Students completed the 2019-2020 school year learning from home when schools were ordered to close on March 16. The 2020-2021 school year is scheduled to begin on August 17, but Dr. Contreras noted that she was not in favor of returning to in-person learning at the start of the school year.

“We know there are no perfect answers and that each scenario has its advantages and disadvantages,” she said. “We want to give students the best environment possible, whether that’s a blended model or one that provides different styles of instruction to students in different grade levels. Ultimately, we cannot compromise the health and safety of our students and staff.”

Plan B also means that fewer students can attend school in person at the same time. As part of Scenario A, high school students would learn remotely five days a week. Students with disabilities or who are learning English, homeless or living in foster care would attend school full time, regardless of grade level.

In Scenario B, students attend school two days a week and learn from home for three days a week, in alternating groups. Scenario C would alternate weeks so that half of the student body would attend school one week, and the other half would attend the next week. Remote learning would take place on the alternate weeks.

Each North Carolina school district has been directed to follow The North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) and Department of Public Instruction (DPI) classroom learning specifications based on guidelines issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

On Tuesday morning, GCS officials used Sternberger Elementary School to showcase two model classrooms designed for social distancing. One of the oldest and smallest schools in the district, Sternberger is more than 70 years old and serves 412 students in grades Pre-K through fifth.

According to Angie Henry, GCS Chief Operations Officer, the state guidelines indicate they are able to return to in-person learning with 50 percent occupancy, which is not measured by statutory class size or student enrollment, but based on fire-code occupancy per school building.

Most third-grade classes have around 20 to 21 students; with the latter being the maximum state mandated number. To ensure that each desk was spaced six feet apart, extra tables, bookshelves, and chairs had to be removed. In redesigning the classrooms, district leaders also had to leave a six-foot buffer space around any air conditioning units to eliminate concentrated air flow over students’ desks, and maneuver around built-in bookshelves.

“In our older schools, the classroom sizes are smaller. What was once a 770 sq. ft. classroom now becomes a 568 sq. foot classroom, which allowed us to fit 15-16 desks,” said Henry.

All soft items such as rugs, pillows and bean bag chairs were removed to address disinfecting concerns on porous surfaces. Water fountain use is no longer permitted under the new guidelines.

“We’re trying to minimize the amount of shared surfaces that are touched every day,” Henry added.

Symptom screenings, including temperature checks, will take place daily before children enter the school buildings. Face coverings will be required for every teacher, staff and student from Kindergarten through high school. The state has committed to providing at least five reusable face coverings for every student, teacher and staff member.

Dr. Whitney Oakley, GCS Chief Academic Officer noted that schools will look a lot different than what parents and students are used to.

“We’re focused on serving the greatest number of students we can, for the greatest amount of time that we can, but keeping them healthy and safe is at the top of our list. It’s very complex and it requires a lot of different things to be funded,” said Oakley.

Additional costs include things like protective plexiglass for school administration and nurses’ offices, furniture removal services for schools that don’t have storage space, mobile white boards, and some classrooms would need to be equipped with a sound system to assist in learning. Shared class items such as dry erase markers, calculators or books would not be allowed, with each student required to have their own. Every item that enters a classroom has to be disinfected, and teachers will be required to do additional sanitizing in their classrooms. Schools would also need extra cleaning supplies and more custodians.

New rules state there will have to be a limit placed on the number of students allowed in the bathrooms, in the halls and on the playground at one time. Oakley noted that outside recess time would be reduced to one class on the playground at a time and the equipment has to be cleaned between each class use. Schools are encouraged to also utilize their outside campus spaces for learning when possible.

“We will have to be creative about opportunities for movement inside and outside the classroom. Teaching kids ways to get up and move around while being safe and social distancing,” she said.
Students will not be allowed to eat in the cafeteria either; rather meals will be served in the classrooms. Sternberger’s combined cafeteria, gym and auditorium space was repurposed to hold two fourth grade classes, which includes a separating partition and accommodates 20 desks on each side. GCS administrators say they are aware that not every school is the same, and each one of GCS’ 125 schools will have to be innovative in modifying their classrooms to comply with guidelines.

GCS Principals and school leaders toured the model classrooms in small groups on Tuesday morning to get ideas to take back to their respective schools. Oakley also said that back-to-school open houses will look different this year, and school administrators are working on plans that allow parents to check out classroom spaces by appointment.

While in-person learning will look different, so will remote learning. Students also have the option to apply to one of the district’s two new virtual schools, which were recently approved by the state. Guilford eLearning Virtual Academy will serve students in grades K-5. Guilford eLearning University Prep will serve students in grades 6-8. High school students will be able to enroll in the University Prep program but remain students at their current high schools.

In all the scenarios under consideration for reopening the schools, eligible students in grades 11 and 12 would be encouraged to participate in Career and College Promise, which allows students to take college classes free of charge through Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) while in high school.

The GCS Board of Education will adopt a final plan at the July 28 meeting.


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