Willard at board meeting

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard, far left, addresses the Wilkes School Board, including Chairman Rudy Holbrook, center, and Hardin Kennedy, far right. Willard was wearing a mask but removed it at the request of Wilkes school board member Sharron Huffman, apparently so she could be heard better.

The Wilkes Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to start the new school year with all students at home engaged in remote learning each day, despite objections voiced by two students and two parents that night.

The decision keeps students out of their classrooms at least through Sept. 8.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard recommended this action to Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd Friday and held fast to this at the school board meeting.

“This is the best thing moving forward for everyone to keep kids in school long-term,” said Willard, referencing the risk of students having to remain out of their classrooms much longer if action now isn’t enough to control the spread of COVID-19.

She told the school board that it was with a heavy heart when she made her recommendation to Byrd by phone Friday. That same day, she recommended this to school board chairman Rudy Holbrook.

Willard said it resulted from a COVID-19 spike with about 100 new cases last week in Wilkes. She said especially concerning was that the majority of last week’s new cases resulted from “community spread,” meaning they couldn’t be traced to a particular source. People contracting the virus while on vacation is still a primary cause of community spread in Wilkes, she added.

Two incubation periods

Willard said 28 days of remote learning only (starting this past weekend) would be long enough for two 14-day virus incubation periods, which she said would be adequate for making a decision on what to do next based on COVID-19 case trends on Sept. 8.

She said a shorter 100% remote learning period wouldn’t be long enough when school board member Hardin Kennedy asked about this.

“If you don’t support this (shorter remote learning period), it’s negligence on our part,” said Kennedy. Fred Johnson, school board attorney, recommended that the school board follow Willard’s advice during the meeting.

Willard and Byrd say they communicate with each other daily concerning the status of COVID-19 in Wilkes and plans for the new school year, which begins Aug. 17 statewide. “I tell Mark every day that my goal is for kids to come back to school safely,” she said.

Wilkes school officials had planned to start the school year with most students in each school divided into two groups—one using remote learning at home and the other classroom learning on Mondays, reversing this on Tuesdays and continuing the alternating pattern each week day.

This is form of Plan B, which allows no more than half of a school’s student capacity on campus at any given time. Having all students learning remotely at home is Plan C. About 25% of students already opted for this. All versions of Plan B must have social distancing, masks and other measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Byrd announced the change from Plan B to entirely Plan C for the start of the school year about 5 p.m. Friday.

Willard said it’s also concerning that the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is staying around 8%. She said the CDC recommends that a community’s positivity rate be 5% or less before its schools open for half capacity.

Kennedy asked Willard if a school must close for 28 days if it has at least five COVID-19 cases simultaneously. She said criteria for determining when a school must close due to COVID-19 hasn’t been determined and that more guidance is expected from the state. She said current options include closing a classroom instead of an entire school.

Hard for working parents

Lindsey Hayes, mother of rising first-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders in the Wilkes schools this year, said she cried for two hours when she received a call Friday saying the year would start with remote learning.

“Remote learning is just not an option” for her family, said Hayes, explaining that she works eight hours a day in a hospital and her husband works 12 hours a day. She said no grandparents are able to provide child care and her two older children babysit for the younger two in the summer.

Hayes said parents were asked if they felt it was safe for their kids to return to classrooms, referring to a survey on the Wilkes school system website in late June and early July. The majority of respondents said it was safe to return to classrooms.

“Parents know what’s best for their children, and if they feel it’s safe…. I just feel that’s where the children need to be. Everybody’s able to go to Walmart and we come here to this meeting.”

Hayes said she didn’t see why the Wilkes schools couldn’t continue with Plan B, which allows having up to half of a school’s student capacity on campus learning in-person at any given time.

Tony Bailey said that in mid-July when the Wilkes school board decided to use Plan B, “parents around the county including a lot of those in my employ began feverishly making child care and transportation plans.”

He said employers had to be flexible for those plans to be implemented and work schedules had to be altered. “Promises were engaged and payments were obligated for child care that fit Plan B, not Plan C.”

Bailey said extended family and friend relationships were strained to fit a Plan B schedule provided about a month before school started.

“Then, this past Friday with no warning, the decision was apparently made to move to Plan C. I think it is a gross understatement to say the move to Plan C creates an almost unworkable hardship for families, workers, employers and the community as a whole.”

Bailey said that regardless of the Wilkes health director’s assessment, switching from Plan B to C about a week before the start of the new school year shouldn’t be an option. He said if enhanced safety is needed, it should occur within the framework of Plan B.

High school seniors speak

MaryAnna Bailey, a senior at Wilkes Central High and Tony Bailey’s daughter, said remote learning will make it hard for students to engage in extra-curricular activities that help earn college scholarships. She said this includes high school athletes seeking life-changing scholarships.

“Do to your decision to place us in Plan C, you are taking away our opportunity to be competitive in obtaining admission and very necessary scholarships…. Every face to face opportunity that we miss makes us less likely to stand out for admissions boards and scholarship committees.”

Bailey also cited having to miss the last first day of high school, the first day assembly, working on group projects, homecoming and more. “Your decision will have a life-long impact on the class of 2021, and I encourage you to reconsider.”

Wilkes Central High School senior Jonah Brooks said the top priority of the schools should be physical, mental, emotional and social health of students. He said all of these are neglected more when students are in Plan C (remote learning only) than in any other COVID-19-related school plan.

Brooks said the biggest concern is the rise in child abuse when students learn remotely rather than in classrooms. He said most reports of maltreatment of children in North Carolina come from school teachers and schools are “the only safe environment that some kids know.”

Brooks asked that all issues involved in closing schools be considered, not just COVID-19.

Byrd said he was told about a student at Wilkes Central with a petition drive for opening schools with students in classrooms instead of learning remotely. “That choked me up because it reminded me of what great students and what kind of kids we have in this county. It’s one of the things that makes this such a special place for me and for our teachers to teach. Our students want to be back in school.”

Byrd and several school board members said they want students back in their classes. Byrd asked that students be patient as decisions are made to help keep them safe.

He added, “When people ask me why we made the decision that we did, I can tell you without a doubt that we’re trying to keep our students and our staff safe…. Nothing matters more than keeping people safe.”

Plan B details

Wilkes Schools Transportation Director Eric Barker said that under Plan B, parents will have “attestation forms,” with questions that screen children for COVID-19. If a child doesn’t display one of the forms, signed by a parent or guardian for that day, the child’s temperature must be taken before he or she can board a school bus.

Barker said that if the child doesn’t have a form and has a fever exceeding 100.4, the objective will be getting the child home. Temperatures will be taken before students enter schools also.

Barker said bus drivers will receive pay for an extra 30 minutes of work for thorough cleaning and sanitizing of buses at the end of each day. He said each school will have an electrostatic machine for additional sanitizing when needed.

Bergie Speaks, director of facilities for the Wilkes schools, said maintenance and custodial staff in the Wilkes schools received additional in-person and online training in cleaning and sanitizing measures that address COVID-19. He said this training can be extended to teachers and others.

“We’re preaching to all of our folks. Clean it first and then sanitize it. But it’s going to be a huge undertaking,” said Speaks. He noted that 1,200 gallons of hand sanitizer were ordered for distribution in different areas of Wilkes schools.

Funding for additional custodial services is in the 2020-21 Wilkes school budget. Each classroom has additional cleaning and sanitizing supplies, masks for children and rubber gloves, plus each school will have additional masks elsewhere.

Julie Triplett, chief technology officer for the Wilkes schools, said 38 temperature scanners were purchased for the schools. Triplett said that if the temperature of a student exceeds 100.4 when checked at a school entrance, it will be taken again with a handheld thermometer during Plan B.

Triplett also said 1,081 Chromebook laptops were purchased to make sure each student in the Wilkes schools has a laptop for remote learning at home in Plans B or C. Zoom software was purchased to help teachers communicate with students during remote learning.

She said hardware was purchased to enable parking lots at each school to be a WiFi access points for Wilkes school devices. Triplett also mentioned 21 free WiFi access sites established by Wilkes Communications at most Wilkes fire station and church parking lots, plus there are others elsewhere.

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