Macon County students are heading back to in-person instruction in high numbers following the state’s decision to allow grades K-5 to operate in “Plan A,” the least restrictive COVID-19 education plan, earlier this month.
Superintendent Chris Baldwin informed the school board on Monday night that Macon County had roughly 900 students in the virtual academy at the beginning of the fall semester in August, but that number is down to 670.
“Once the K-5 students were allowed to go back to Plan A and attend school four days each week in person, a number of parents chose that option,” Baldwin said. “We are still seeing a high number of middle and high school students using the virtual academy. Those students of course would be operating under a Plan B alternate schedule if they chose in-person learning.”
Baldwin added that changes in the protocols at the state level for handling positive COVID-19 tests among students and teachers has led to an easing of concerns regarding potential staff shortages due to long quarantine periods.
Highlands School reported its first positive COVID-19 test among students on Monday. Positive tests were reported the same day at Franklin High School and South Macon Elementary. Each of those students has been quarantined and the Macon County Public Health Department is conducting contact tracing to determine if additional testing or quarantining is necessary.
While the virtual academy is still a work in progress, MCS Information Technology Director Tim Burrell offered good news to the board on Monday night.
The Fontana Regional Library system has donated 60 additional wireless connectivity jetpacks to the school system for students who lack sufficient internet access to complete their school work. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction backed up that donation with an allotment of 339 additional jetpack devices so that every student who requested one in Macon County can have one.
“We have seen issues with students not being able to access the virtual academy due to connectivity issues and these new devices should help with that,” Burrell said. “We are working on setting them up and getting them distributed to students now.”
MCS District Athletic Director and Transportation Coordinator Todd Gibbs didn’t mince words when he was asked about the state’s plan to play all school sports between November and May.
“It’s going to be a logistical nightmare from a bussing perspective and a scheduling perspective,” Gibbs said. “We are even having issues with finding officials because many officials do multiple sports, and those sports are now going to overlap seasons. A person who would normally officiate volleyball, basketball and softball for example, now won’t be able to because the seasons are going to overlap each other.”
Gibbs added that the county only has a set amount of activity busses, so scheduling away events is also going to be a tall order.
Another potential issue for sports teams and their respective schools is the cap on the number of spectators allowed at sporting events. Under state guidelines, only 100 spectators are allowed at outdoor events. That number is capped at 25 spectators for indoor events like volleyball and basketball.
“We have spoken with a number of schools in other counties and pretty much everyone will not be allowing visiting team spectators, not even parents, to go to away games,” Gibbs said. “Even at home games it is going to be an issue. If you have 12 players on the basketball team and they each have two parents, that is 24 people and that’s the whole capacity.”
Allowing such a small number of spectators is also going to hurt athletic budgets across the school district, according to Baldwin.
“When you are talking about gate revenue for thousands of people for football and hundreds for basketball, that is a fairly large amount of money,” Baldwin said. “If those limits remain in place, the gate revenue will be less than 10 percent of a normal year.”
High school athletics are scheduled to begin on Nov. 4 when cross country and volleyball teams may begin practicing. Swim teams may begin practicing on Nov. 23. All other sports will be held during the winter and spring seasons.