GCS board approves 9 weeks of remote learningBy Yasmine Regester, Peacemaker Staff Writer / July 31, 2020
Guilford County Schools’ students will participate in nine weeks of remote learning at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, instead of the five weeks recommended by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper.
The Guilford County Board of Education approved the decision in a six to three vote. Board members Pat Tillman, Anita Sharpe and Linda Welborn all voted no, supporting the original five-week recommendation.
“I don’t know that another four weeks is going to dramatically increase our decision-making,” said Tillman, pointing out that students have already missed months of instructional time when Gov. Cooper shut down schools in March.
As part of the district’s reopening plan, the earliest that GCS students would return to schools for in-person instruction would be Oct. 20, pending a review of local public health data and trends. According to the NCDHHS website, 4,862 COVID-19 cases have been identified in Guilford County as of July 28, with a positive testing rate of 7-10 percent. Public health officials have suggested that case numbers should be five percent or lower before schools reopen.
Supt. Sharon L. Contreras said the recommended four additional weeks of remote learning will give more time to procure technology needed for the classrooms and to take care of transportation scheduling.
“There are two major concerns. One is that the data is not pulling in the right direction in regards to public health and test positivity rates; and secondly, we heard from a lot of parents and board members about our students not attending school,” said Contreras.
The board also discussed four re-entry scenarios on Tuesday to follow remote learning that will be voted on at an upcoming meeting.
Scenario I: K-8 in school full time and 9-12 remote full-time.
Scenario II: 50 percent K-12 students attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, schools closed for deep cleaning on Wednesdays, 50 percent of K-12 students attend on Thursdays and Fridays.
Scenario III: K-5 in school full time, 50 percent of grades 6-12 students attend A week Monday through Thursday with teacher planning on Fridays. The 50 percent of 6-12 students attend B week Monday through Thursday with teacher planning on Fridays.
Scenario IIII: K-5 face-to-face attendance Monday through Friday every week – full school day. Grades 6-8 face-to-face Monday through Thursday mornings for four hours per day. Grades 9-12 face-to-face Monday through Thursday afternoons for three hours per day. Fridays will be used for teacher planning.
“All of these models, when you consider social distancing requirements, have challenges,” said Supt. Contreras. “We tried to come up with different models to get as many kids in schools as possible. We have dozens of principals working on these. We are short hundreds of staff. What we’re asking for in terms in the school day, is not going to be what we had before.”
GCS staff presented an example of an average GCS school with a projected enrollment of 1,067. With social distancing guidelines in place, capacity on average per class would be 17, down from 21, with 820 total capacity. Early projections show that the school would need 247 additional seats and 15 more classrooms.
“We have to go through this exercise for every building in the district. We have to do this for each scenario,” said Contreras.
Challenges for the district include support for special student populations, transportation, health and safety barriers, building infrastructure needs to accommodate social distancing, variance in current building occupancy across the district, devices and connectivity/technology, professional development, and food and nutrition services. A district task force made up of parents, community agencies, teachers, bus drivers, child nutrition staff, teacher assistants, and principals, have been convened to address solutions to the challenges.
According to Angie Henry, GCS chief financial officer, about 17 percent of students will not have access to Wi-Fi connectivity or a device to effectively engage in remote learning. GCS began with 16,000 devices and was able to obtain 15,000 more electronic devices through a donation from the Guilford Education Alliance in March.
Contreras also said she was hopeful of additional federal and county funding to help cover rising pandemic related costs.
GCS is joining 41 other North Carolina school districts in starting with remote learning in the fall. The next steps for the board include determining the public health metrics it wants to use when deciding whether the district can reopen schools safely for in-person instruction.
Whitney Oakley, GCS chief academic officer, outlined a schedule for the month of August and September.
August 10-13 are mandated teacher workdays and school-based device distribution will take place in scheduled times throughout the days. From August 17 through September 4, students will have access to live and prerecorded content and introductions to eLearning, health and safety training protocols for teachers and staff, and student school orientation appointments will take place. Live virtual class-time instruction will begin on September 8.
Oakley also presented an example of what a typical daily plan for remote learning may look like for students, outlining a six-hour day that includes instructional time, breaks and virtual interaction with peers.
Students will receive grades through the new remote learning format. Although the first weeks of remote learning are mandatory for all students, virtual academies are available for the remainder of the school year and the registration deadline is September 15. Supt. Contreras shared that about 5,000 students have already signed up for virtual academies.
District meal distribution will end on August 31.
District 1 board of education member, T. Dianne Bellamy Small expressed concerns about how remote learning is going to impact district employees such as nutrition staff, bus drivers and after school childcare. GCS leaders admitted that there is no funding to support those staff members and their jobs would be suspended until students go back to school.
The Board of Education is expected to review public health COVID-19 health indicators to determine entry criteria for opening and closing schools at its August 11 meeting. A review of public health indicators to determine if it’s safe to reenter on October 20 will take place at the board’s September 24 meeting.