Fixed and firm metrics, not emotion, key to returning kids to in-person instruction
Nyssa Fucci and Jennifer White have a lot in common. Both are mothers of elementary school students. Both believe schools can be made safe and they are willing to send their children back to school for full-time in-person learning, and both take long walks on the beach.
The two mothers are only separated by a 15-minute drive. But they live in two different states, have two different governors, and their children’s school year is headed in two different directions.
Nyssa Fucci lives on the North Carolina side of the border, near Sunset beach in southern Brunswick County.
Her daughter Kiera is going into the 3rd grade at Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary, a school just a stone’s throw from the South Carolina line.
Nyssa Fucci, along with many other parents, were shocked when Brunswick County Schools abruptly reversed course and decided to open the first 4.5 weeks under home-based remote learning only.
“My husband and I own a small carpentry business. He’s the lead carpenter, along with others. I run the brains of the operation and keep the books. I think the schools need to be open. I thought maybe they would at least open it for a few days a week.”
Beside her daughter missing in-person instruction, of greatest concern for Nyssa is her 4-year-old autistic son that receives services from the Brunswick County Schools. Virtual learning is not an option for him, and it is unclear if in-person services will be available, or transportation for him, as his commute is over an hour a day each way. Nyssa can’t both work and meet the demands of her job while caring for a special needs child under Brunswick County’s surprise move to Plan C.
“The whole point of him going early is getting him ready for kindergarten, and he is simply not going to be. It is just one more reason kids need to be in school.”
After an hours-long meeting with multiple failed motions, a narrow 3-2 majority of Brunswick County Schools (BCS) board members voted in favor of delaying in-person learning for 4.5 weeks, opting for remote learning for all students.
Board member Gerald Benton advocated for keeping schools open five days a week for students utilizing room left open by anticipated remote-only students. He questioned whether the quality of virtual education would stack up to in-person instruction and reminded the board of the needs of working parents.
An estimated 10% of BCS students do not have access to the internet at home, according to the district’s remote instruction plan recently submitted to the state. Sharing equity concerns, Benton said students do not have equal access to an equal education under current blended remote or remote-only options.
“We’re taking taxpayer money and we need to provide parents with the best education possible,” he said.
Superintendent Jerry Oates recommended the board delay reopening schools for in-class instruction for nine weeks before an in-person instruction plan is finalized.
After the contentious July 21 board meeting, Brunswick parents blindsided by the new decision mobilized.
They begged the board to reconsider, pointing out the board selected an option never presented to the public, or included in the parent questionnaire.
“That was never an option given on any of the surveys we ever saw, was four and a half weeks of remote learning,” Monika Satterwhite said, a parent in the county.
Parents created the organization Brunswick County Families for Safely Reopening Schools and also created a petition, urging the board to reconsider.
So far, the board has not moved. Superintendent Oates said Brunswick needs more time to open under Plan B, because “the safety protocols would be extremely difficult to carry out logistically.”
Brunswick County School leaders say they will be ready to open under plan “B” after 4.5 weeks of remote learning. But will they?
Gov. Roy Cooper’s overly complicated and expensive school opening plans have led to school districts covering nearly 3/4th of all North Carolina public school children returning to school with virtual remote learning only, and most others rarely seeing a classroom.
As Civitas has noted, judging Gov. Cooper by his own goals and words, set just weeks ago, he has failed the parents and children of North Carolina miserably.
The discussion at the Brunswick School Board also centered on a confusing debate over virus numbers, where there is a lack of consensus on what the numbers even mean about possible resuming of in-person learning.
Agreement on what the numbers mean will be no more likely a month from now, all the more so in our highly politicized society. Rest assured the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the largest teacher professional association in the state and a de facto teachers union, will continue to apply pressure to keep schools closed as they have across the state. While NCAE pressures school boards to keep schools closed, they have been unwilling to provide workable metrics or criteria that should be used to decide when to partially and fully open schools. The Gaston County NCAE chair said her fellow teachers wanted to start the school year online and only allow kids back into classrooms once COVID-19 numbers drop to pre-March 16, 2020 levels.
North Carolina had about 30 cases of Covid at that time. It could take several years to fully open schools using that metric.
Governor Cooper has not said when he would review his decision about allowing schools to fully open under Plan A, which provides five day a week full-time instruction. Moreover, Cooper has done nothing to encourage counties to get their doors open to students.
So, for Nyssa Fucci, she knows come August 17 her daughter will not be in school despite her wishes. She is unsure what the future holds for her autistic son, and his services from the Brunswick schools. Brunswick County Schools may or may not open their doors for part-time learning. It’s hard to know, because there are not firm metrics to judge when and how the counties should move from Plan C (all virtual) to Plan B (hybrid learning).
Right now, there is no visible path to getting her children back into school for full time Monday through Friday in-person learning. It is not clear if it is even a goal of the governor, the state or her county.
Almost all North Carolina counties are facing this problem.
Wake County calls their all virtual, Plan C opening a transition to plan B, but there is no timetable, nor firm metrics for parents to follow. When New Hanover reversed course, after adopting plan B, the school system spoke about the difficult logistics of Plan B and the threat of potential rising Covid cases, but again they adopted no metrics and assigned no goals.
It is almost universal across North Carolina. Counties, under pressure from the NCAE, adopt an all virtual learning model, with no objective criteria on what to do next.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston says he is unsure when CMS plans to reopen its schools for in-person instruction, while claiming it will be when health officials deem it to be safe. However, there is no agreement on specific metrics that will be used to make that determination.
When Durham County reversed course from hybrid learning to on-line learning, board members cited teachers not feeling comfortable, insufficient staffing and a lack of resources as the reasons. Durham Board member Natalie Beyer said about a return to in-person learning, “I still don’t think, even if the metrics were right, that we have what we need to make that happen.”
Civitas can find few examples if any of local school districts that have adopted Plan C – all remote learning – who have also adopted fixed criteria on how to transition to in-person hybrid part-time learning, let alone even beginning to think about a transition to full-time in-person learning when the state allows counties to do so.
Based on the best information available, no counties have adopted firm criteria including infection rate and recovery rates, community spread, or hospitalization occupancy numbers. When you don’t adopt a measurement or any standard or goal, how do you know if you have reached it?
It leaves parents like Nyssa Fucci struggling, frustrated, wondering and waiting.
Jennifer White and her family are located 15 miles south of Nyssa Fucci’s home in Brunswick County North Carolina. Jennifer lives in South Carolina and has much better prospects for having her two children in full-time, five day a week school. Her son will be in grade 4 and her daughter in the 5th grade at Ocean Drive Elementary, in North Myrtle Beach South Carolina.
On July 15, Gov. Henry McMaster called on all public-school districts in the state to give parents the option to send students to school five days a week or provide a virtual education option. While not all districts will open full time immediately, South Carolina is requiring all students to have an option of some in-person learning, and school districts must have a transition plan moving towards 5 day a week full time learning.
“I want them to go 5 days a week. I work eight hours a day. I can’t do home school six hours a day,” said Jennifer White, who works in the medical field and is fully comfortable with the safety precautions schools have adopted and with sending her children back to school.
“That is the American way to have choices. If you don’t like what the district is doing, go to private school or home school, as much property tax as I pay a year, I expect my kids to be educated.”
Jennifer and Shane do not know exactly how their children will return to school on September 8, three weeks after North Carolina’s August 17 return date, but they know how schools and local officials will make that decision. Unlike almost every North Carolina district that adopted a virtual only plan, South Carolina’s Horry County, home to tourist mecca Myrtle Beach and the quieter and more relaxed shag dance capital North Myrtle Beach, Horry has adopted specific metric driven criteria that will drive school opening and operating decisions. The plan focuses on getting children back into school on a full-time basis as soon as it is safe, even if a brief transition period through virtual and hybrid learning is needed. The re-opening plan was quickly approved by the State of South Carolina.
When and how frequently students enrolled in the traditional option will be allowed to learn inside buildings will be determined by S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control metrics using COVID-19 activity in each county.
- The first measure, two-week incidence rate, is based upon the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people for the prior two weeks. Incidence rate is then categorized as follows: Low = 0-50; Medium = 51-200; and High ≥ 201.
- The second measure, the trend in incidence rate, is established by determining whether the two-week incidence rate is increasing, decreasing, or stable compared to the previous two weeks. For the purposes of this assessment, the trends are considered to be equivalent to Low = Decreasing; Medium = Stable; and High = Increasing.
- The third and final measure, two-week percent positive rate, is based upon the percentage of individuals who tested positive out of the number of individuals tested with a molecular (swab, or PCR) test in the last two weeks for each county. This measure takes into consideration the number of tests performed for residents of the county in the previous two weeks. For this assessment, results are categorized as follows: Low ≤ 5.0%; Medium = 5.1% – 9.9%; High ≥ 10%.
If the report determines “low spread” of the disease, then students will return to full-time traditional schooling for five days a week.
If the report determines “medium spread” then the students will take part in a hybrid combination of face-to-face and distance learning. There will be two days of face-to-face instruction and three days of distance learning.
If the report determines “high spread’ then schooling will start on Sept. 8 with five days of distance learning.
Reports are issued weekly, and those reports determine the next week’s plan of instruction. The initial plan for the first week of school will not be decided until the virus spread reports are complete at the end of the month.
The metric based system is already paying off for Horry County. As North Carolina struggled with its first week of virtual school, complete with internet connection issues, constitutional questions over school system run, fee for service learning centers, and unworkable computer equipment delays, schools in Horry would have a mix of in-person and online classes due to declining COVID-19 infection rates.
That’s according to data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) released on Monday, August 17th.
“I’m optimistic and I hope that the positive trend continues,” said HCS superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey. he district will use the Aug. 31 report to decide how classes will begin.
Ocean Drive Elementary Principal Renea Fowler says her school is ready to have their students back. Fowler says they have met serious challenges before with serious outbreaks of the flu, and that while everyone is nervous, most parents and teachers are ready to return to school, and all her “babies” are begging to come back to the classroom.
“I know staying out forever is not going to work. We are just going to do what is right for kids, if there was a crystal ball that would tell us what that meant, we would go with that, but there is no crystal ball. We will do what we have to do,” Fowler said.
With well over a million North Carolina public school children ordered to stay home when the school year starts, parents like Nyssa Fucci have no idea when their kids will see a classroom even part time. Nyssa has little hope they will be back in school on a full-time basis any time soon. Since North Carolina has no specific metrics to follow, parents can only wait, hope and pray. But hope is not a strategy. It is not a plan.
Shane and Jennifer White live in a state and a county committed to getting their children safely back in the classroom. Decisions are based on transparent data. Goals and benchmarks are clearly defined. Caterwauling by a teacher’s union appears irrelevant to the discussion.
Even though the two families are relatively close, 12 miles apart, they represent two different approaches to public policy on such a monumentally important issue as the health, welfare and education of our youth and the larger effects to our economy and society.
As their children played with others from the neighborhood in their yard on a steamy summer afternoon in North Myrtle Beach, when asked by Civitas if they were glad they did not live in North Carolina, Jennifer just looked at her kids and smiled and Shane simply said, “I wouldn’t.”