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State leaders urge return to in-person instruction; Western districts largely unaffected 

Two measures from state leaders this week sent the same message to families across the state: Children need to return to the classroom for in-person instruction. Senate Republicans introduced Senate Bill 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families around the same time that Democratic Governor Roy Cooper held a press conference with the North Carolina Department of Public Health Secretary Mandy Cohen and Superintendent of Public Schools Cathy Truitt urging districts to provide in-person options for families across the state. 

While the message is the same — in-person learning is the best option for students — how the groups on different sides of the political aisle want to accomplish it varies. 

The Macon County Board of Education held a special called meeting Thursday morning to clear up confusion surrounding the two measures and how it relates to Macon County. 

Senate Bill 37, which was co-sponsored by Senator Kevin Corbin, would require that all 115 public school districts in North Carolina provide an in-person option for students. The Governor’s announcement and letter to local districts — strongly encourage local districts to offer in-person instruction. While SB37 would mandate it, Governor Cooper is requesting and urging it. 

While one would be a requirement and the other is a recommendation — the details of what in-person instruction would look like if implemented basically remain the same for both parties. 

SB37 states schools have to provide access to in-person learning under Plan A (minimal social distancing) for students with exceptional needs.

It also requires schools to provide in-person learning options for all K-12 students under either Plan A or Plan B (moderate social distancing).

Families would still have the choice of remote learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

SB 37 also states that schools would be required to follow all guidance from the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, which was developed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Governor Cooper’s recommendation mirrored SB37 in every way, with one key difference. SB37 gives districts the option for K-12 classes to return for in-person under either Plan A or Plan B — while Governor Cooper left in place requirements that K-5 can return under Plan A and 6-12 must return under Plan B — unless Plan A can be achieved through reduced student capacity or due to small school sizes. 

For Macon County, that means all grades K-5 in Macon County are currently and have been for months, in school for in-person instruction under Plan A four days a week. Grades 6-12 are under Plan B — with the exceptions of Union, Macon Early College, Highlands, and Nantahala, which are also under Plan A due to enrollment numbers. 

If passed, SB37 could mean grades 6-12 could return to school under Plan A, however, the bill has a long way to go to get a vote from state legislators. 

In Swain County, county officials voted to remain in Plan B for all students, even elementary schools, in the interest of public safety. 

Jackson County also approved students returning for in-person instruction, with plans varying based on grade and school. 

Because Swain, Jackson, and Macon County Schools are already providing in-person instruction, both the Governor’s recommendation and SB37 will have little to no impact on current operations. In fact, since August, 90 of the state’s 115 school districts have been providing in-person instruction. Sb37 would require the 25 districts in the state currently all virtual to begin offering an in-person option. 

Dr. Baldwin noted that while the majority of districts in the state offer in-person instruction, more than half of students in the state are still choosing virtual learning. Based on overall state attendance in North Carolina Schools, more than 750,000 students are in person, which demonstrates 48 percent of the student population, meaning 51 percent of students in the state are currently virtual. That percentage would change if the 25 districts that are currently virtual provided an in-person option, however, a large number of the students enrolled in virtual learning are doing so by choice. 

For Macon County, that means over 500 students are currently enrolled in virtual learning across the district. Because of the number of virtual students, Dr. Baldwin noted that it wouldn’t feasible for students to return to school five days a week. Dr. Baldwin explained that teachers need Fridays to handle the virtual student population. 

Dr. Baldwin also warned against a rush to in-person instruction without access to vaccines for teachers. 

“Without vaccination within our school staff, increasing students on campus would increase possible exposures which would increase possible quarantines. My fear is that if we rush to Plan A, we would have additional quarantines, and instead of being able to offer Plan A 2 or 3 days a week for all schools, we would end up all virtual because of quarantines,” Dr. Baldwin. 

Macon County Public Health Director said that it will likely be several weeks before teachers are in the approved group for vaccination based on the limited supply of 300 doses per week Macon County receives from the state. 

“We know that recently the state has revamped the way they look at different groups,” said McGaha. “We are currently vaccinating groups 1&2 — teachers fall in group 3. The state has told us that we have to get through 1&2 before we can move to group 3. At the current rate, we are getting vaccines, it will be several weeks before we get to through group 3 at the current vaccine supply.” 

As a whole, North Carolina was receiving 120,000 doses, however, the Biden Administration committed to increasing that, and was able to boost the number to just over 140,000 this week. McGaha said while that increase is welcomed, it still isn’t enough to meet the current demand or the 4,000 person waiting list in Macon County. 

While Macon County teachers have not been vaccinated, the majority of teachers in both Swain and Jackson County have had the opportunity to receive the vaccine.

Another issue with both Governor Cooper’s recommendation and SB37 is that both options state that Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit would need to be followed by school districts. Currently, the toolkit requires moderate social distancing — or one person per seat—  on school buses. 

“The state needs to address school buses,” said Dr. Baldwin. “While they are saying we may be able to return for in-person instruction in the classroom under Plan A — there hasn’t been any discussion surrounding requirements for busses.”

Macon County School nurse Julie Rogers explained that while the district is currently managing quarantines and positive numbers throughout the school system, additional students in schools would mean additional exposure and quarantines which she fears would push the district beyond its manageable limits, forcing a closure. 

Dr. Baldwin also informed the board that Macon County has confirmed a case of COVID19 transmission from student to teacher surrounding an outbreak in an EC classroom. Although transmission from student to teacher is rare, Macon County believes it has occurred. 

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