Free COVID-19 testing began at Highlands School on Sept. 15 for any students, faculty or staff member who chose to participate.
NC Association of Educators representative John de Ville asked the Macon County Board of Education to expand the program to all schools in the county on Monday night.
During the board meeting, chairman Jim Breedlove read a letter submitted by de Ville on behalf of the teacher’s union. In the letter, de Ville called for the school district to supply all teachers with N95 masks, expand the COVID-19 testing program to all schools, and only continue in-person instruction as long as the local positive test rate is less than 3 percent.
“As president of the Macon County Association of Educators I am asking you this evening to work on the issues of providing N95 masks for all faculty and staff of Macon County Schools who wish to wear one going forward, and to investigate the possibility of doing ongoing testing at all Macon County Schools as is currently happening at Highlands School,” de Ville’s letter read. “We appreciate your efforts thus far to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe during the pandemic and as we add more students to our classrooms Oct. 5, we would surely appreciate the board’s efforts, the county commissioners’ efforts, towards the extra margins of safety afforded by additional testing capacity and higher quality masks.”
According to de Ville, the free COVID-19 testing being provided at Highlands School by the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation is a model for testing at other schools, despite less than 25 percent of students or faculty “opting in” to the program.
In the letter, de Ville cited Highlands principal Brian Jetter, who noted only 13 of the school’s 65 faculty and staff members and only 67 of 347 students decided to take part in the voluntary weekly COVID-19 testing program.
The board took no action on de Ville’s requests.
K-5 start “Plan A”
On Sept. 17, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced that all K-5 students statewide can return to in-person learning via the state’s “Plan A” as of Oct. 5 if approved by the local board of education.
Plan A is the least restrictive model for in-person instruction. While masks will still be required, students can attend school each day with no mandated social distancing.
Macon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin recommended that all K-5 students in the county go to a modified “Plan A” schedule on Oct. 5, which will allow for in-person learning Monday through Thursday, with a remote learning day on Friday.
“We have to remember that we still have more than 900 students that are doing virtual learning only, which is their parents choice, and we need to allow time for teachers to work with those students,” Baldwin said. “Our teachers need that time on Friday to focus on the virtual learning program.”
Board members Stephanie McCall and Fred Goldsmith initially opposed Baldwin’s proposal for a transition to “Plan A” and asked the board to consider sending all K-5 students back to in-person classes five days each week.
“I think we as board members have heard from people who say the online education simply isn’t working,” Goldsmith said. “It should be our goal to have students in the classroom as often as is possible.”
Baldwin agreed with Goldsmith’s premise, that in-person education is more effective, but reminded the board that the virtual learning option was approved by the state and the local district has no authority to do away with it. Since the virtual learning program isn’t going anywhere for the rest of the school year, teachers need time to work with parents and students utilizing that format.
“I work with several school districts and I’m in contact with many more, and I can advise that none of the districts I deal with are going to five days a week in-person,” Macon County Schools attorney John Henning Jr. said. “Some aren’t going to ‘Plan A’ at all, they are staying in ‘Plan B,’ and the ones who are moving toward ‘Plan A’ are all doing four days per week in-person.”
Ultimately, a motion to approve “Plan A” for all classes in grades K-5 beginning on Oct. 5 passed by unanimous vote.