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Kindergartners and first graders back in school as OCS board discusses reopening

<p>Screenshot from the Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.&nbsp;</p>
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Screenshot from the Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. 

For some 5-year-olds in Orange County, the first day of in-person kindergarten looked a bit unusual — just a handful of students, all wearing masks and sitting too far away to whisper to friends during class.

Orange County Schools began reintroducing in-person learning this week, with the first cohort of kindergartners and first graders starting Jan. 25. Superintendent Monique Felder presented the district’s reopening plans at the Board of Education meeting Monday, as some teachers began in-person learning with just two kids in a class cohort.

If you're a parent, teacher or student in a local school district, take five minutes to fill out our survey by texting "education" to 73-224. 

Students in grades two through 12 will return in the fourth quarter, starting in early April. Staff members must return by Mar. 22, although they are able to work remotely until then.

Felder cautioned families and community members that the district’s reopening plans may need to be changed throughout the pandemic and encouraged families to have contingency plans in place if the district needs to transition to fully remote learning.

“Plans can change literally on a dime,” Felder said.

As of Dec. 30, 58 percent of families in Orange County Schools signed up for in-person instruction through the district’s hybrid learning model, Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Dawson said.

As more students are expected to come back to the classroom, the board is considering school day logistics to minimize the spread of COVID-19. During the meeting, board members reviewed the district’s request to allow students to eat meals in classrooms.

The district’s preference is for students to eat meals outdoors, barring inclement weather or temperatures below 40 degrees, Dawson said. If that option isn’t possible, the district recommends letting students eat meals in classrooms as opposed to large indoor spaces, which is currently the default. Classrooms have been outfitted with air purifiers, Dawson said.

Board member Sarah Smylie said the air purifiers are a “baseline” solution for allowing students to return to the school and asked about additional enhancements for meal times — including putting tents outdoors and opening windows in classrooms.

“It is to our advantage to put in more layers of protection in the event that we end up with a more contagious virus,” Smylie said.

Board Chairperson Hillary MacKenzie said the district could provide picnic tables, outdoor shelters, beach chairs, coats for students and other supplies to have meals outdoors to minimize possible transmission of COVID-19.

The board ultimately passed a motion to permit students to eat meals in classrooms when they cannot eat outdoors, provided that air purifiers are used, classroom windows are open and greater than 6 feet of distance is maintained between students.

Melany Stowe, public information and community engagement officer for OCS, presented the district’s communication plan for COVID-19 cases in the school system. Starting this week, the district will be updating to a new dashboard that will provide the numbers of new cases, clusters and cumulative positive cases for both staff and students, with data broken out by each school and center in the district.

As of now, the dashboard is scheduled to be updated every Friday by 5 p.m. Data is tabulated daily by school nurses, but the dashboard needs to be updated manually. 

The board dedicated part of Monday’s meeting to recognizing Orange County Schools alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who led crucial research for the Moderna mRNA vaccine. Board Vice Chairperson Brenda Stephens read the resolution out loud, and the board unanimously approved the motion to honor Dr. Corbett for her “unprecedented research and success in thwarting a life-threatening pandemic."

The next meeting of the Orange County Schools Board of Education will be Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. Members of the board will also be hosting virtual office hours on Feb. 13 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.


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