Schools to reopen on Aug. 17

  • Highlands School will welcome students in "Plan B" on Aug. 17.
    Highlands School will welcome students in "Plan B" on Aug. 17.

The plan to reopen schools in Macon County, including Highlands School, came into focus on July 30 when the Macon County Board of Education solidified its plan to start the school year on Aug. 17 under the state’s “Plan B.”

For Highlands, that means a complex schedule early in the school year.

On Aug. 17-18, only elementary school students will be on campus at Highlands, while middle and high school students do remote learning online. Elementary and middle school students will be on campus Aug. 19-20 with high school students doing remote learning. 

Friday, Aug. 21 will be the first on-campus day for high school students with elementary and middle school students doing remote learning.

The second week of school will follow the same schedule as the first.

Beginning on Aug. 31, all students will be on-campus Monday through Thursday and all students will do remote learning on Fridays through the end of the semester. Due to COVID-19, face coverings will be provided for all students and staff and six feet of social distance will be maintained between students.

“I am not an epidemiologist, nor am I an expert in how viruses spread throughout our communities,” Baldwin said. “Because of that I have to rely on our local health department, our state health department, our governor and the president to guide me in making these decisions regarding reopening our schools.”

Following North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision on July 9 to allow school districts to choose between “Plan B,” which allows for school buildings to open with increased social distancing, and “Plan C,” which is virtual learning only, Baldwin and the MCS staff began pouring over the information provided to them by state and federal agencies.

“One of the key metrics when making the decision whether or not to reopen schools is to consider the number of active local cases per 100,000 residents, and currently Macon County is in the low-risk zone according to the Harvard Global Health Institute guidelines,” Baldwin said. “Are there other metrics we have looked at, absolutely, but that is one of the key metrics we were given to look at when forming our plan to reopen schools.”

Baldwin noted that Macon County was the final school district in the state to make a decision on a reopening plan. There are 115 school districts statewide and they are almost evenly split between Plan B and Plan C.

“Roughly 50 percent of schools districts have opted to go with Plan B and 50 percent have chosen to go with Plan C,” Baldwin said. “Most of the school districts in Western North Carolina are going with some form of Plan B. Some have made alterations to Plan B, but that is what most of our comparable counties are doing.”

Macon County Schools Science, Technology, Engineering and Math coordinator Jennifer Love shared the results of both a survey that was sent to parents and a survey sent to teachers in order to find out their plan preference.

Parents can choose to enroll their students in the virtual academy online learning program, but if they do take that option the student must stay in the virtual program for a minimum of nine weeks.

“We had 3,314 parent surveys completed, which represents 76 percent of the student population as of July 30,” Love said. “A vast majority of the parent surveys favored reopening in Plan B. About 84 percent of respondents stated that they do have reliable internet service at home, while 15 percent said they do not have that service available.”

When it came to the teacher survey, the results were more of a mixed bag.

“A total of 325 teachers said that they do plan to return to in-person instruction, while 30 teachers have requested to be virtual academy instructors due to health issues,” Love said. “We have had other teachers that said they would be willing to teach virtual classes if we need them to. Most of the comments were very positive and teachers understand there are going to be frustrating aspects of teaching no matter the format next year.”

Love added that while 325 teachers did say they would come back to teach in person, there were several comments about the health and safety of the classroom when the in-person instruction begins on Aug. 17.

“There were teachers who expressed concerns about the face coverings and making sure that the face covering rules were enforced,” Love said. “Others questioned the social distancing of students, faculty and staff, and whether or not that can be properly maintained.”

In the Franklin area schools, where social distancing of students is not possible given class sizes and school building square footage requirements, students will operate on an “A-day/B-day” schedule. Half of the students will attend class Monday and Wednesday and the other half Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays will be a remote learning day for all students.

The next Macon County Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Aug. 17, which is also the first day of in-person student instruction.