Highlands goes back to school

  • Highlands School administrators and staff members greeted elementary school students outside on Monday for the first day of in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year.
    Highlands School administrators and staff members greeted elementary school students outside on Monday for the first day of in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year.

Smiles may have been hidden by face coverings at Highlands School on Monday morning, but the enthusiasm of teachers, students and parents shined through as the school welcomed pupils for the first day of the 2020-21 school year.

For a majority of the students, opening day was their first back in a classroom since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school system to transition to remote learning in March.

Unfortunately, Macon County Schools didn’t make it through the first day without being reminded of COVID-19.

“We learned on Friday that we had a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 and that person is now quarantined for 14 days,” Macon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin said Monday during a board of education meeting. “Also, there were a couple of teachers and other staff members who were in close contact with the person who tested positive, and they also have been quarantined until they get their test results back.”

Baldwin noted that substitute teachers and staff were able to fill the gaps on Monday and the school district is not short-handed, although he did note that a staff shortage is a possibility if more school employees are exposed to COVID-19 and thus require a quarantine period.

“If we get anywhere near that point, where it is unsafe to operate the schools or we do have a staff shortage, I will inform the board and we can take action at that time,” Baldwin said. “For right now, we are fine.”

Baldwin then informed the board of an incident that took place on Monday, where a parent who was a confirmed active positive COVID-19 patient entered a school building with their child.

“We did have people exposed at one of our schools today, due to a parent who had previously tested positive entering the school building,” Baldwin said. “We were forced to send a couple of staff members to be tested and then self-isolate until they get their test results back.”

When asked how school administrators learned that the parent in question was actively positive, Baldwin replied another parent, who is familiar with the patient, identified them to school officials after learning the patient had left their residence to visit the school.

“Obviously, we do not want people who are actively positive for COVID-19, or are sick in any way, to come to the school buildings,” Baldwin said. “Everyone needs to follow the quarantine procedures that are in place so that we can keep the virus from reaching our students and our staff.”

The school buildings are reopening under the state of North Carolina’s “Plan B,” which features a mix of in-person and remote learning. Baldwin noted that the school district can move to “Plan C,” which is 100 percent remote learning at any time should COVID-19 conditions warrant such a decision.

Along with the COVID-19 incident, Baldwin noted that multiple students were sent home on the first day after they showed symptoms of illness prior to being allowed into a school building.

“We did have students that presented a fever and they were not allowed into their respective schools,” Baldwin said. “Not that this is good news, but I was informed by a parent this afternoon that two of those students had tested positive for strep throat and their illness was not COVID-19 related.”

Other than the COVID-19 issues, Baldwin said the first day of school went off as well as could be expected. The biggest issue he heard from staff members was trying to keep elementary school children socially distanced six feet apart.

MCS Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program coordinator Jennifer Love spent the day in the schools and reported that student morale was high even with the unusual circumstances.

“The kids all seemed pretty excited to be back and to see their friends,” Love said. “They kept their masks on and they were really champs about the whole process. Of course we are going to have to keep reminding them about the social distancing, but overall the mood was pretty positive.”

In Highlands, only elementary school students attended class in-person on Monday and Tuesday. Middle school students first day of in-person instruction was Wednesday and high school students began in-person learning Friday.

The same schedule will be followed next week (Aug. 24-28) before all students return to in-person instruction Monday through Thursday the following week. Friday will then transition to a remote learning day for all students.