GREENSBORO — The youngest students in Guilford County Schools could get back into classrooms sooner than their older classmates under a gradual re-entry plan the superintendent proposed today.
If and when the district reopens, Superintendent Sharon Contreras is calling for it to not shutdown again for COVID-19 unless so ordered by the state.
The district started the new year Aug. 17 with remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, with plans to continue learning outside of school buildings for at least the first nine weeks of the academic year.
The superintendent's plan calls for adding back a few grades at a time to school buildings over a series of weeks starting with some pre-K and kindergarten students. She looks to hold off until at least Jan. 20, the beginning of second semester, bringing most high school classes back into classrooms. However, she would like to start allowing high school students in for short periods for science labs, JROTC, and hands-on career tech opportunities.
Contreras presented her re-entry proposal to the Guilford County Board of Education at its meeting today. She is asking board members to vote on it at their next meeting on Sept. 24.
Most school board members who shared their thoughts seemed open to a phased-in approach to reopening, however, several said they would like to see the high school classes come back sooner than mid-January.
The superintendent wants the school board to consider two components when it votes on her plan: the criteria to determine whether or not the schools can safely reopen, and how to do it.
Contreras wants most of her plan to be dependent upon COVID-19 indicators. However, she said today she would like to go ahead, sometime before Oct. 20, with an option for families to send their kindergarten and pre-K students back to schools for half-day learning, without tying that to the COVID-19 reopening criteria.
These grades, she said, are having the most difficult time with remote learning.
"They’ve never been in school, they’ve not met teachers before," she said.
As far as a trigger for the rest of the plan, Contreras recommends monitoring COVID-19 cases in Guilford County between Oct. 2 and Oct. 16.
To greenlight reopening, she would want to see positive test results under 5% and new cases below 125-130 per day, for each day across that time period. Contreras said in an interview that the county positive test result rate was at 5.3% Monday.
She also wants to measure rates of hospitalizations and intensive care unit stays, looking for those indicators to trend downward over the two weeks.
Contreras said she picked the indicators for school reopening criteria at the recommendation of the Guilford County Health Department.
If the COVID-19 requirements are not met, Contreras said, the district would delay reopening schools until the county sees 14 consecutive days that meet those criteria.
Once re-entry begins, Contreras said, she recommends that even if COVID-19 health indicators go in the wrong direction that the entire district not close again unless so ordered by the governor or state. Individual schools could close based on cases or clusters in the buildings.
Under her proposal, if the county meets the requirements between Oct. 2 and Oct. 16, the gradual reopening of other in-person classes could begin Oct. 20.
Contreras is proposing that if COVID-19 criteria allow, students in pre-K through second grade could attend Monday through Friday, and sixth graders could attend school in-person two days per week, with half on Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays.
The idea, Contreras said, is to give the elementary and middle schools a chance to practice their new social distancing protocols with their youngest students.
At the elementary schools, teaching assistants, including some former after-school care teachers, would play a critical role, allowing teachers to split their classrooms up to better accommodate social distancing. In instances when their classes are split across two classrooms, teachers could alternate the groups of students with whom they are working, while teaching assistants supervise the other group.
The district has invested in some technology to help with this situation, however, Contreras said the "Swivl" devices it bought for this purpose have not arrived yet.
She is also recommending that the separate schools for students with special needs open for full days Monday through Friday starting on that day. Other vulnerable students, including some with disabilities, those in the first year of language acquisition, students in foster care, those with multiple risk factors and homeless students could also return that day.
She would then look to bring back grades 3-5 and 7-8 on Oct. 26, with seventh and eighth graders also attending two days per week, just like the sixth graders.
Contreras is recommending waiting until Jan. 20 to bring back high school students, however, she would like to start bringing them in for short periods for science labs, JROTC, and hands-on career tech opportunities that can't be done remotely before then.
Once they returned for regular classes, most high school students would attend two days per week, half on Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays.
Board members Darlene Garrett and Anita Sharpe told Contreras they were concerned about waiting until second semester to bring back the high school students.
"It may be a cleaner break, but from what I am hearing, the students are starved for the social and emotional part of their high school education, and we all know that is important," Sharpe said.
She wondered whether some students might turn to drugs or be more at risk of suicide without in-person school.
Board member Khem Irby also said she would like to see the high school students back in school sooner rather than later, though she appreciates that Contreras' plan doesn't just keep them home entirely. And board member Patrick Tillman also said he hoped for some compromise for the high school students.
Contreras told them that the Guilford County Health Department, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an international study by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. are all recommending that school districts reopen gradually.
High school students, she said, are from her understanding more likely than younger students to transmit the virus.
Waiting to bring back high school students could allow them time to build confidence in the district's ability to halt spread, she said. If high school students were to come back before the younger students and then contribute to an outbreak, that could derail public support for the plan, she said.
"If we can bring back elementary and middle school as a proof point, you will be less likely to hear from students and families that the district should close," Contreras said.
Vice Chairwoman Linda Welborn praised the idea of a gradual re-entry plan as a way to learn from mistakes or challenges and said she saw sense to the idea of waiting for second semester for most high school classes, rather than potentially having them come back to school in and around the holidays or in the middle of exams.