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WUNC's education coverage is led by reporters Dave Dewitt and Reema Khrais. Dewitt has been with the station since 2003. Khrais is focused on Education Policy Reporting. Browse recent stories here.

Back To School In A Pandemic: NC Schools Face An Uncertain Year

Lakewood Elementary 5th grade teacher Kelly Shearon greets her class on the first day of school
Liz Schlemmer
Lakewood Elementary 5th grade teacher Kelly Shearon greets her class on the first day of school.

A majority of North Carolina public school districts are returning to school remotely Monday.

Many teachers will be meeting their students over video calls, and spending the first days of school navigating online instruction. Some districts are still struggling to supply all their students with devices and wifi hotspots as the school year begins, including Orange County, Guilford County and Durham Public Schools.

Getting enough devices and hot spots is also a financial issue -- some districts need time to figure out funding for devices. A Durham Public Schools spokesman says some of their device shipments were held up at U.S. Customs.

The snags have some districts calling the first week an orientation, with the expectation that meat-and-potatoes instruction may have to wait until students are more prepared.

Dane West NC Schools
Credit Dane West
This graphic shows reopening plans at schools across the state as of Aug. 16, according to a Wake County Public School teacher and NCAE member Dane West, who has followed updates from districts.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 40 percent of districts will be starting with in-person classes. Those districts -- mostly in rural areas and with fewer COVID-19 cases -- will be following Governor Roy Cooper's minimum guidelines that require all students and teachers to wear masks, and be spaced out at least six feet.

For some schools, that means having to operate with reduced capacity in the building, and bringing students back in cohorts. A common plan is to have one group of students in the building for class on Monday and Tuesday, the other group Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be a cleaning day.

The transition to hybrid learning, a mix between in person, and online each week, has been quite the process for some schools, like Shelby High School where David Allen is principal.

“A lot of us were very hopeful that what we experienced in the spring was going to be over and that we would come back in the fall, and things would be normal, and I'm not sure if that was... just wishful thinking, I'm not sure at this point,” Allen said. “But I do feel like because of the uncertainty, and because of the process that it has been... you just kind of keep kicking the can down the road a little bit further in case the numbers come down, and it just makes it kind of difficult to build a schedule and make all the arrangements that you need to make for all the different options.”

Schools that are reopening in person also have to provide an option for teachers and students to participate remotely, to help those at higher risk, or who live with people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 dashboard shows the number of cases per 10,000 people by county as of Friday, Aug. 14. Updated numbers can be found here:

North Carolina schools have been given two months worth of PPE supplies for nurses and other staff who will be doing screenings for all students and staff entering the building before class starts. Allen and Shelby High School’s staff have been coordinating details to maintain distance between students, and making school hallways one-way to prevent crowding.

While children appear to be less likely to transmit the virus, the U.S. is unique in advising states to reopen schools with a lack of widespread testing for COVID-19, and high community spread. The directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came after pressure from President Trump and Vice President Pence to reopen schools.

Gov. Roy Cooper and state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen have said for months that the best way to ensure North Carolina could get students back to school safely was adequate testing and lowering the rate of community spread of the virus. They've also been critical of what they say is the federal government's inadequate response to filling the state's requests and needs for testing supplies.

The decision by Gov. Cooper to require schools to open with at least Plan B, social distancing and masks, came two weeks after it was originally scheduled -- July 14 instead of July 1. Around the same time, some of the state’s largest districts like Wake County Public Schools and Durham Public Schools announced their decisions to open with remote learning. Both districts have higher rates of community spread of the virus than other parts of the state. 

But for other districts, the decision came even later.

Many teachers just returned to school buildings last week, with limited time to prepare for an entirely different education environment. And those teachers have already been working to adapt their lessons to work both in the classroom, and for the students who are at home, and others to completely remote learning for at least the beginning of the semester.

Classroom and school buildings are unique, so teachers and staff at schools reopening in person are working together to create a safe learning environment that works. And, similarly to how teachers teaching with completely remote learning will have to spend a chunk of their time making sure students are oriented to the technology, teachers in classrooms will have to spend time reinforcing social distancing and mask wearing.

Last week, Duke University researchers released a tool that might help get a better understanding of how safe an individual classroom is relating to the spread of COVID-19. The tool considers number of students, teachers, room size and ceiling height. You can access the tool here. WUNC is interested in anything you learn from it about your or your child’s learning environment. 

Along with the difficulties facing educators and students to education this fall, there’s also the impact on families. Many parents working from home won’t have a place for their children to spend the school day like normal. In Wake County, there’s an effort to have academic learning settings for a price that’d allow ten students to be in a supervised space with one adult, and access to wifi so they can have a place to be while parents are at work, or work from home. A similar plan was announced Friday by Durham Public Schools.

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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