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In surprise announcement, Contreras says she will leave at end of school year

GREENSBORO — Superintendent Sharon Contreras has led Guilford County Schools through every step of the COVID-19 pandemic as she and school board members felt their way through a maze of difficult decisions and frustrating choices. 

In a surprise announcement on Friday, she announced plans for her exit. 

Contreras said she will be leaving after the end of this school year to take a position leading The Innovation Project, a nonprofit group of North Carolina school superintendents that tries to develop innovative strategies for public education.

As she spoke with reporters on Friday about her choice, Contreras said she was drawn by the opportunity to help other superintendents and hopes the job will allow her to spend more time with her grand-nephew Jonathan, whom she is raising.

"I realized I am caring so deeply for other people's children and I have a child that's about to go into high school, and at some point we all have to make a decision about what's good for ourselves and our own family,"  she said. 

The pandemic, she explained, has made the job of a superintendent more difficult than ever — as well as other for other district staff, from teachers to bus drivers. 

"I think that the community has to come together to solve some of the problems created by the pandemic instead of simply looking at school districts and saying this is a school district problem," she said. "I think that makes it much more difficult to keep educators in positions." 

Greg Newlin, the principal of Western Guilford High School, attended Friday's news conference and listened to Contreras take questions from the media and receive praise and congratulations from the district's school board chairwoman and vice-chairwoman. 

He said he thinks Contreras has a good grasp of the "plight of the day to day" facing educators.

"With all she has to do in terms of running this enormous organization, she understands that struggle at the school level," he said.  

Contreras has lead Guilford County Schools for five and a half years. She previously was superintendent for the Syracuse City School District in New York from 2011-2016, following many years as an administrator and teacher in districts around the country. 

Over that time, Contreras built national connections through her work with groups like the Council for Great City Schools and Howard University’s Urban Superintendents Academy.

In December 2020, CNN reported Contreras was among those being "seriously considered" to be President-elect Joe Biden's education secretary. The position ultimately went to Miguel Cardona.

And in November, The School Superintendents Association named Contreras a finalist for its 2022 Women in School Leadership Award.

In Guilford County, Contreras championed projects to expand and reimagine the district's career and technical education offerings, such as several new "signature" academies that have opened at area high schools.

She also played a critical role in the creation of Guilford County Schools' facilities master plan. Voters approved a $300 million bond referendum in November 2020 aimed at funding the first phase of that plan. 

At other times, Contreras waded into controversy, such as when she recommended closing Gateway Education Center to protect students with special needs amid the building's ongoing structural issues and other health concerns. Parents battled the proposal, Contreras backed off and the school board ultimately voted to keep Gateway open while funding some repairs. 

Reactions on Friday to the news of Contreras' departure varied. 

"I'm just still very overwhelmed and sad and at the same time I understand people have careers, too," said Khem Irby, a school board member. "She has given all of her expertise and talent to Guilford County. It makes it very hard for the next person as well because we can't accept anything less." 

Irby said Contreras has a great ability to not only come up with a vision but also lay out a plan that's supported by data. And she said she's been struck with the rapport Contreras has built with everyday people in Guilford County. 

"People in this community really do love her," she said. "People come up to her and they know her."

Marc Ridgill, a retired school resource officer and longtime Contreras critic, said he thinks a different leader could do better with improving district reading scores and lessening violence and discipline issues in schools. A lot depends though, he said, on whom the school board picks as her replacement. 

"It's only half the battle," said Ridgill who ran for school board in 2018 and plans to run again this year. "The replacement is more important than her leaving."

School board member Deborah Napper fell somewhere in the middle. 

"For the district, I don’t think it’s a matter of good or bad," she said. "It gives us the opportunity for some new blood and some new thought processes. It's an opportunity for change."  

Napper said that since she joined the board in December 2020, her entire time working with Contreras has been during the pandemic. 

"I think she handled that as well or better than the other superintendents in North Carolina and she did the best with what she had," Napper said. "There were so many situations where there was no good answer. " 

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'People are worried': Guilford braces for bitter blast of debilitating snow, ice

ATLANTA — Weather forecasters’ predictions of debilitating snow and ice as far south as Georgia sent parts of the region into a tizzy Friday with shoppers scouring store shelves for storm supplies and road crews trying to prevent a repeat of past wintertime debacles.

Guilford County has declared a state of emergency starting Sunday morning — just before the storm begins to get fierce.

“Err on the side of caution and take predictions for this winter storm seriously,” Melvin “Skip” Alston, who chairs the Board of Commissioners, said in a statement.

The city of Winston-Salem had to borrow workers from other departments to help treat roads ahead of the storm because COVID-19 had caused a shortage of workers, spokesman Randy Britton said. Even volunteers pitched in to help as the city stepped up its normal schedule of preparing for winter weather.

“We feel real good about where we are,” he said. “We’ve checked the boxes.”

In High Point, city officials think a stockpile of 800 tons of salt and 33,100 gallons of salt brine should keep roads manageable.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an emergency order and the administration urged people to stay at home after the storm hits. The state highway agency warned that labor shortages meant crews might not respond to problem areas as quickly as normal.

“We just don’t have as many people to drive the trucks or operate the equipment,” said Marcus Thompson, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

In Virginia, where a blizzard left thousands of motorists trapped on clogged highways earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and urged people to take the approaching storm seriously. Some store shelves were stripped bare of essentials including bread and milk in North Carolina.

Trucks prepared to spray a briny mixture on roads to prevent icing across the region, and Travis Wagler said he hadn’t seen such a run on supplies at his Abbeville, S.C., hardware store in at least two winters.

“We’re selling everything you might expect: sleds, but also salt, shovels and firewood,” Wagler said from Abbeville Hardware. There, forecasters predict a quarter-inch of ice or more on trees and power lines, which could lead to days without electricity.

“People are worried,” Wagler said.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an emergency order saying the state would likely feel the effects of the major winter storm starting Sunday morning.

“There is a potential for very dangerous conditions caused by accumulations of ice and snow, which will likely result in power outages across the state,” he said.

The National Weather Service said from 2 inches to 5 inches of snow could fall as far south as northeast Georgia from Saturday evening though Sunday, and power outages and travel problems will be made all the worse by an additional coating of ice and winds gusting to 35 mph. Snow accumulations could reach 8 inches in the highest elevations.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the state was preparing “to the max” for the blast.

“Hopefully, the storm will underdeliver, but it could overdeliver. We just don’t know,” he said.

Parts of Tennessee could get as much as 6 inches of snow, forecasters said, and northern Mississippi and the Tennessee Valley region of Alabama could receive light snow accumulations. With lows predicted in the 20s across a wide area, any precipitation could freeze and make driving difficult.

On Friday, the fast-moving storm dropped heavy snow across a large swath of the Midwest, where travel conditions deteriorated and scores of schools closed or moved to online instruction.

A winter storm watch extended from just north of metro Atlanta to Arkansas in the west and Pennsylvania in the north, covering parts of 10 states including Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Travel problems could extend into metro Atlanta, where about 2 inches of snow brought traffic to a slip-sliding halt in 2014, an event still known as “Snowmaggedon.”

At Dawsonville Hardware about 60 miles north of Atlanta, owner Dwight Gilleland said he was already out heaters by noon Friday and only had five bags of salt and sand left.

“I think the pandemic has made people more anxious than normal,” he said.

Many schools and businesses will be closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which could help reduce travel problems along with temperatures that are supposed to rise into the 40s.

Pam Thompson, who owns Dillard House Stables in north Georgia’s Rabun County, was near the bullseye of the largest snow forecast. She was gathering feed and hay for about 40 horses in case the snow and ice doesn’t make a fast departure.

“We have snow every year up here in the mountains and it will be anywhere from 6 to 8 inches, and it’s usually gone pretty fast,” Thompson said. “What I’m seeing on the forecast is that it’s going to be really cold next week, so the snow may not go away as quickly as normal.”

Anxious. Helpless. Upset. Omicron surge leaves parents, teachers and students on edge

Tierra Pearson suspected the winter months would mean a sharp surge in coronavirus cases. So the Chicago mother made sure she and her two sons — seventh- and 10th-graders — were fully vaccinated.

“We were going to be prepared,” she recalled.

But as she kept the TV news on around the clock over much of the last two weeks, watching in dismay as leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot battled over safety precautions and schools reopening, Pearson felt far from prepared. She felt helpless.

“We as parents were totally left out of the conversation,” she said. “We had no voice about our schools, and that was truly a shame.”

As the omicron variant continues to propel a massive surge in infections that has hit many educators and school staff, parents across the nation are faced with painful deja vu: toggling between virtual and in-person schooling and trying to keep up with constantly evolving district policies.

This week the Biden administration announced that it is planning to make 10 million COVID-19 test kits available each month for schools as part of its push to keep classrooms open during this wave of infections — a critical step considering that vaccination rates are lower among children.

Overall, 63% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but among children ages 12 to 17 the rate sits at 54% and among those 5 to 11, the rate drops to 17%. (In Vermont, 48% of that age group are vaccinated; in California, nearly 19%; and in Mississippi, 5%.)

But disruptions have occurred and at regular intervals.

On average, about 4% of schools across the country — 4,179 of 98,000 schools — dealt with COVID-19 disruptions such as closures this week, according to Burbio, a K-12 school opening tracker. That’s down slightly from 5,376 schools last week and a fraction of the peak that occurred around Labor Day 2020 when more than 60% of schools were closed, said Dennis Roche, Burbio’s co-founder.

Most of the closures were in the Northeast and Midwest, but some schools were starting to close in the West and South, Roche said. In Minneapolis, schools will go virtual for two weeks starting Friday because of a surge in omicron cases among teachers. In Louisville, Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools shifted to remote learning because of COVID staffing shortages, while in the Portland, Oregon, metro area, school districts moved to remote learning due to surges in cases and teachers being out sick.

Across the U.S., students are threatening boycotts and walkouts. The Oakland Unified School District faces such a strike unless it addresses a list of pandemic health and safety concerns. Students want the district to return to remote learning unless it provides KN95 masks for all kids and are calling for increased testing, among other demands. On Jan. 7, 12 district schools were forced to close after teachers staged a “sickout,” citing COVID worries. About 500 teachers were reported absent. And in New York, hundreds of students in recent days boycotted classes and staged walkouts over concerns about testing and called for remote learning to be implemented.

“We’re really in a pressure cooker situation right now, because American families are holding up the economy, we’re holding up the healthcare system and then we’re also expected to hold up the public education system,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a network of grass-roots parent groups. “A lot of families across this country are absolutely at their breaking point.”

For many parents who live paycheck to paycheck, taking a few days off when schools close can mean the difference between having groceries or not and making rent or not, Rodrigues said. Beyond the financial loss, many parents worried that their kids’ mental health and grades would deteriorate when schools switch to remote learning.

“When you close down schools over an abundance of caution, understand what you are asking of American families who are already at the brink,” she said.

This week the Clark County School District, which spans Las Vegas and is the nation’s fifth largest school system with more than 320,000 students, announced it was canceling classes for two days due to extreme staffing shortages.

Jessica Atlas, a 46-year-old single mother, was already frustrated with the school district for not planning activities for her son, Ashton, 9, while he quarantined this week after he caught the flu and she tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I feel like the bottom’s falling out,” Atlas said, noting that Ashton had not been sent home with any additional schoolwork.

“There should be a plan in place if you send kids home. But there’s no organization, no real leadership and no real plan to catch these babies failing all over the place.”

The district said there would be no remote learning on the canceled school days.

“I’m on the edge of my seat just waiting with anxiety,” she said. “Are we going backwards? Are we going to be shut down completely?”

In Atlanta, six metro school districts began classes online after winter break because of high COVID-19 case counts. But by Monday, all but one reopened to offer in-person classes — even as they continued to battle high case rates and staff shortages.

“One of the most consequential takeaways over the past 22 months is that there is no doubt our young people need the positive influences and safe spaces our employees and school campuses provide more than ever,“ Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent of Henry County Schools south of Atlanta, wrote in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Pandemic or no pandemic, our belief in the power of in-person learning will remain strong, and we will continue to do everything we can to provide that wholesome experience for the success of our youth….”

Still, many students across the Atlanta area remained out of school.

Even as Atlanta Public Schools resumed in-person classes, Maria Arias, 46, a mother with two children in high school and two in day care, kept her kids home because her family had contracted COVID-19 over the winter break.

A grass-roots member of the Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools, Arias couldn’t go back to work as a server at a small ice cream parlor until her youngest children tested negative and could return to day care. “It’s just hard,” Arias said as she struggled to keep her older kids on task with their schoolwork.

In recent months, the issue of schools opening or closing has become a battle between politicians and unions.

Last week, President Joe Biden said “we have no reason to think at this point that omicron is worse for children than previous variants.”

“We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That’s why I believe schools should remain open. They have what they need,” he added.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who took office this month, stood firm on plans to reopen schools in the new year. But in recent days, as cases in the city rise sharply, Adams has considered a virtual learning plan, but it has not been implemented.

Back in Chicago, the school district reopened this week after a two-week standoff between Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union.

The union wanted the option to revert to remote instruction across the 350,000-student district, and without it, hundreds of teachers refused to teach in person for the last two weeks.

Still, Chicago leaders, including Lightfoot, rejected districtwide remote learning, saying that it’s detrimental to students and that schools are safe.

After several days of back-and-forth negations, both sides reached an agreement that included provisions for additional testing and metrics allowing for schools with major virus outbreaks to close and go virtual.

Natalie Neris, chief of community engagement at Kids First Chicago, a group that advocates for more resources for students, said the interests of families must be at the forefront of debates.

“Parents are the consistent stakeholder,” she said. “Everyone would benefit from recognizing their importance, listening to them more intently, and putting kids first daily.”

For Pearson, 32, a hybrid option provides a sense of ease. Last week, she began feeling sick and got tested along with her kids. Each of their results came back negative, except for her son who is in seventh grade, who tested positive. He had no symptoms. She kept him home from school this week.

“It’s all over the place with this virus, and things are changing daily,” she said. “Schools need to adjust and be flexible as well.”