In-person learning

Beckett Cecile enjoys the companionship of an Australian blue heeler named Mack while he is engaged in remote learning at home. Cecile is a fifth-grade student at C.C. Wright Elementary School in North Wilkesboro.

The Wilkes County schools are still scheduled to transition from remote learning only to a combination of learning in classrooms with teachers and learning remotely Tuesday, “barring a major change” in COVID-19 locally, said Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd on Friday.

The Wilkes Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 10 to start the 2020-21 school year with all students at home engaged in remote learning each day (Plan C).

Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard stated on Aug. 26, “I think we are still on target for kids to return to school Sept. 8 from a local standpoint.” Willard said Monday that she still believes this.

She heavily influenced the board’s decision to start the year with Plan C by recommending that all Wilkes students learn remotely long enough to equal two 14-day COVID-19 incubation periods, starting Aug. 10. Willard said this would allow an informed decision in early September on whether to shift to the Wilkes school board’s version of Plan B.

This plan calls for dividing students at each school into two groups, except those who opted for remote learning the entire first nine weeks. The two groups will alternate between learning remotely and in classrooms each school day, but never the same on the same day.

The school board had planned to start the year with Plan B until Willard prompted the change. Wilkes had just experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases (about 100 cases) the prior week.

She said Wilkes County’s COVID-19 positivity rate in early August also influenced her decision to recommend starting the year with Plan C.

Around 8% of COVID-19 tests given at the health department in early August came back positive and the CDC recommended a community positivity rate of 5% or less before opening schools at half capacity. Willard said about 10% of the health department’s COVID-19 tests came back positive in mid-August, but it later improved to about 5%.

Also on Aug. 10, school board members emphasized their intent to have students transition to the board’s version of Plan B on Sept. 8. Plan B achieves Gov. Roy Cooper’s mandate of not allowing students in a school at one time to exceed half of the school’s student capacity.

Wilkes reached a COVID-19 milestone Thursday when the positive case total reached and surpassed 1,000. The total that day was 1,002, with 848 of those listed as recovered and three hospitalized.

The News & Observer in Raleigh reported that the majority of school districts and more than 70% of public school students started the year with remote instead of in-school learning. More of these districts are using remote learning for the first nine weeks than for shorter periods.

Wilkes school board member Sharron Huffman said the Wilkes School District’s version of Plan B is better for students in kindergarten and students with learning disabilities or lacking motivation because it allows them to never go more than a day without in-person teaching.

More school districts are using a version of Plan B with one group using in-person learning and the other learning remotely on Monday and Tuesday, taking a break on Wednesday to allow thorough cleaning of schools and the opposite on Thursday and Friday. Huffman said this results in students going without face-to-face interaction with teachers, tutors, speech or other therapists and others who help them learn.

All versions of Plan B must have extensive social distancing requirements, masks and other measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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