Following a session of contentious discussion, Orange County Schools’ Board of Education voted during a meeting Monday night to delay in-person opening for grades two through 12 until late March.
Before Monday night’s meeting, the board had moved forward during a December session with plans to bring classes back to school buildings under a hybrid “Plan B” option this month. In Monday's 4-3 vote, the board decided to delay in-person return for students in grades two through 12 until at least March 26.
The board also voted to allow kindergarten and first grade classes to return Jan. 25 only if three preconditions were met:
- The purchase and installation of air purifiers in all used classrooms
- A plan for student meals to be eaten outside of the classroom
- A program of regular COVID-19 antigen testing in each building
This decision came after a session of robust debate, with many teachers at Orange County Schools rising as the most prominent voices of opposition to an in-person return.
During the public comments period of the session, several teachers spoke out against the plans to return to in-person classes with an urgency prompted by the upcoming deadline of returning to campus.
Kevin Reese, a mathematics teacher at Cedar Ridge High School, said he would not return to school if the board did not decide during Monday’s meeting to return to a virtual plan. Reese said this was a decision he would be forced to make for the sake of protecting his family.
“The choice that your action is forcing us to make between putting food on the table and keeping the virus at bay is monstrous,” Reese said.
Much of the discussion Monday night centered around the timing of the planned in-person return and how it could negatively impact the local community during an already precarious time for the pandemic’s development. Over the past week, Orange County had recorded just over 300 COVID-19 cases, fewer than surrounding counties like Alamance, Durham and Wake.
With the vaccine in North Carolina currently currently limited to those age 65 or older, many expressed concerns about the danger reopening could pose to keeping infection rates low.
Resident Jamie Crandell said she isn’t opposed to, and even supports, efforts to bring younger grades like kindergarten back to school — but she fears an across-the-board reopening could threaten the safety of the community.
“With the way the vaccine is trending currently and a vaccine on the horizon, I do think that it’s the wrong time to do a giant reopening of all the schools,” Crandell said. “I would like you to consider something in between those two extremes.”
After an extended informational session by the Orange County Health Department and the ABC Science Collaborative about how the virus is trending in the county, the board finally voted by a narrow margin to delay the return of grades two through 12 until the end of the third grading quarter.
Board member Brenda Stephens said during the session that this wasn’t the best time to be pushing teachers back into the classrooms, arguing that an in-person return should only be done once teachers can receive both doses of the vaccine.
“We say we value them — well, I wanna show them that we do,” Stephens said.
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