The Orange County Schools Board of Education voted to send elementary school students back to in-person learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year in a meeting Monday night.
The board passed Plan A for elementary schools, which will begin April 7. Students will be able to attend either in-person or virtual instruction Monday through Thursday, while Fridays will be an asynchronous, online schedule that will consist of one to four hours of learning activities. This plan also does not require a limit to the number of students allowed in each class and allows for “minimal” social distancing.
On March 8, OCS fully implemented Plan B, a hybrid approach to learning that involves dividing the students into two separate cohorts as they alternate weeks for in-person learning. It also requires 6 feet of social distancing and masking at all times.
Amanda Bunch, communications specialist for OCS, said by April 1, Plan B will no longer be an option for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“At the March 22 School Board Work Session, the OCS School Board voted to keep students in Grades 6-12 in Plan B through the end of this school year and to reopen all schools in August in Plan A,” Bunch said in an email. “Districts across the state must still continue to offer all families — PreK through 12 — a fully virtual/remote learning option.”
Danny Benjamin, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine, spoke at the meeting and discussed the safety precautions necessary for both Plan A and B in detail. He helped provide research to the board regarding how certain COVID-19 restrictions have worked in schools statewide.
“The within-school transmission remained remarkably low, only 190 transmissions,” Benjamin said. “Most of these districts were in Plan A for elementary school and Plan B for middle and high school.”
Chris Marks, the principal of Grady A. Brown Elementary School in Hillsborough, said Plan A will allow students to remain virtual if they choose 100 percent remote learning, but provides face-to-face instruction for those wanting it. There is also a self-paced option that is available to all students.
Teachers will have additional workdays before Plan A goes into effect.
The board decided for middle and high schools to remain in Plan B for the remainder of the semester, allowing those students to attend in-person learning if their parents or family opted for it.
Gracie Young, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough, read a letter signed by 32 other students asking the board to consider not transitioning to Plan A before the end of the school year.
“Not all of the teachers and students who want and need to be vaccinated have had the opportunity to,” Young said. “With vaccines just beginning to be available, why go back fully now and risk so many exposures?"
Young also mentioned the stress of reopening schools before AP and IB exams, and concerns of overcrowded classrooms with not enough room to social distance and students taking off masks for lunch.
When voting on the issue, Board Chairperson Hillary MacKenzie said she could not support beginning Plan A for secondary schools this year because the students need consistency. She added that she would feel better about returning to in-person instruction when most students are vaccinated.
Although secondary school students will not go fully back to in-person learning this academic year, they will return next fall. The board voted to reopen all Orange County schools under the superintendent-recommended Plan A for in-person instruction for the 2021-22 academic year.
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