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Thursday September 29th

Orange County School Board votes most students return to in-person instruction in 2021

<p>Screenshot from the virtually-held Orange County School Board meeting last weekend where reopening plans for elementary, middle, and high schools were discussed.</p>
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Screenshot from the virtually-held Orange County School Board meeting last weekend where reopening plans for elementary, middle, and high schools were discussed.

The Orange County School Board decided most elementary, middle and high school students will continue to learn remotely until 2021, after convening Sept. 28 and 29 to decide on reopening plans for the rest of the school year.

The school district has been operating with students and teachers learning and working remotely, known as Plan C. 

On Tuesday, the board decided on an amended version of Plan B, known as Option C for elementary, middle and high schools. This option allows students in the Exceptional Children program and Pre-K students to attend school in a hybrid format starting Oct. 27. 

But other elementary, middle and high school students won't be able to return to in-person learning until January. They will return in two cohorts on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1.

Additionally, starting Nov. 15, teachers will be required to teach remotely from their classrooms, in response to a recommendation from Orange County Schools Superintendent Monique Felder. She said staff should return to allow them to adjust to the new learning environment procedures before the spring semester begins.

Felder said teachers can bring their own children into the classrooms or to the learning labs.

“If school-age children can adhere to the safety protocols with fidelity, that’s going to be critical for everyone,” Felder said. “So, under those circumstances, that is doable.”

These decisions were made against the recommendation by the Metrics Task Force, guided by Executive Director of Schools Jason Johnson, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart and Rebecca Crawford, division director of financial and administrative services for the health department, not to transition to Plan B. 

This recommendation was given based on four metrics: weekly confirmed cases, weekly positive percentages, weekly emergency department visits due to COVID-19 and total COVID-19 hospitalizations in the UNC System. The four metrics showed a decreasing trend for the past fours weeks. 

“As a county, we are moving in the right direction,” Johnson said. 

The Metrics Task Force also consulted family and staff surveys.

The School Board distributed a survey gauging family opinions on whether their children should return to in-person learning. Of 4,218 responses, 55.3 percent of families approved Plan B and preferred their students to attend in-person classes. 

But according to the staff survey, over 57 percent of staff answered that they would not feel safe returning under Plan B, given current COVID-19 conditions.

Although the district is planning to partially reopen schools, Dr. Danny Benjamin with the ABC Science Collaborative said he recommended the district wait a minimum of four weeks before amending plans. The ABC Science Collaborative pairs physicians and scientists with school community leaders to help understand COVID-19.

Benjamin proposed a four-week waiting period because it allows for the two-week incubation period of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as two weeks for the district to respond to any cases.

He emphasized that mask-wearing is crucial for most of the day, with the only times for breaks being before and after school, during lunch under strict instruction and when drinking water. 

Benjamin also said for those concerned about vaccines for children, the best case scenario is that they will begin receiving the vaccine at the end of the 2021 calendar year. However, Benjamin cautioned that the timeline he provided is likely to change. 

Crawford said metrics are moving in the right direction, but COVID-19 hasn't been eradicated. 

“We must continue to wear our masks, wash our hands, and wait six feet apart in order to keep these numbers as low as they are now," she said.

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