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How schools will reopen is unclear

LOUISBURG -- Faced with three state-approved proposals for opening public schools in a few weeks, Franklin County Board of Education members learned that the situation is "constantly changing" and that the state, as of Tuesday evening, still had not finalized its recommendations.

"It's a fluid, moving situation," Supt. of Schools Rhonda Schuhler told the school board -- and later quipped that the situation is a little like trying to build an airplane while flying it.

"We are not going to make everyone happy" regardless of which of the three plans is selected, she said. "We have to get more guidance from the state."

Currently the three plans outline variations on school opening options ranging from fairly minimal social distancing by students to one which offers remote learning only.

"We can be more restrictive than the state recommends but not less restrictive," she told the board.

The plans are designated as A, B and C and here are the highlights of each:

Plan A has all students attending school at the same time but face coverings are required in some capacity.

In addition, measures must be in place to check on student safety, including temperature checks, daily health checks and increased social distancing.

Plan B has more moderate social distancing and reduces student face-to-face attendance by at least 50 percent.

Social distancing of six feet will be required with the exception of school bus riders and face coverings will be required in some capacity.

Like Plan A, measures must be in place to check on student safety, including temperature checks, daily health checks and increased social distancing.

Plan C is remote learning only with students learning from home utilizing technology. Paper packets are to be provided as needed but are not the preferred delivery method for instruction.

Dr. Schuhler predicted that at present, it is most likely that the state will select Plan B to open schools but that could change, even after schools have opened, depending on how the pandemic unfolds.

To further complicate the situation, the state was supposed to make a decision on Wednesday, July 1, about which plan districts should use, but that decision is apparently delayed indefinitely.

Indications in Raleigh are that the governor and others are under pressure to open the schools under Plan C, remote learning only, as the number of virus cases continues to climb statewide.

Back in Franklin County, school officials recently completed a survey to gauge how parents and staff feel about key issues around reopening, including wearing of masks, plan preferences and transportation needs.

The survey discovered that 37.9 percent of respondents believe that masks should be required for students and staff throughout the day.

In addition, another 28.7 percent believe masks should be required during transitions and times when social distancing cannot be practiced.

The district's survey also looked at how the school year should be structured.

A total of 49.2 percent of respondents prefer that students attend school face-to-face for two days each week on alternating schedules and then all students should be involved with their teachers virtually on Fridays.

Less popular was having students attend classes personally on alternating weeks, which was preferred by only 25.3 percent of respondents.

The way the school week would likely be structured in Franklin County if Plan B is selected is that one group of students would attend face-to-face classes on Monday and Tuesday, then virtual classes the rest of the week.

The remaining students would attend face-to-face classes on Wednesday and Thursday but virtual classes the other three days.

If indeed Plan B is recommended by the state, Friday's remote learning will include a combination of class time, office hours and planning work.

"This is imperative as teachers will be planning for instruction for two groups of students, one group working at home and the other face-to-face, simultaneously Monday through Friday.

"Teachers will juggle both a classroom and remote learners at the same time. It's going to be very complicated," Dr. Schuhler told the board.

She added that schools will work to ensure that members of the same family are on the same schedule.

Dr. Schuhler told the board that 67 percent of those responding to the survey said masks should be required in some capacity.

She said the district is awaiting clarification on what the requirements will be for elementary school students from the state, but she is in regular contact with Scott LaVigne, Franklin County's health department director, on this issue.

Because of the likely widespread use of face coverings when schools reopen, the district will ask that face covering be brought to school by students as part of their normal supplies.

In addition, the district is starting a mask drive, hoping to obtain at least 10,000 masks and also is buying masks so that students, staff and visitors can be provided with one if they don't present at the school with one.

In the event that Plan C is enacted, school facilities likely will be closed with no students or employees in school building.

Remote learning will be the only option for all students under Plan C.

In addition, Franklin County schools have extended the "dead period" for athletics until July 17, based on the extension of Phase 2 by the governor.

Dr. Schuhler said that schools across the state are still considering the feasibility of face-to-face athletics this fall in light of current restrictions, but that could change.

A Franklin County Virtual Academy has also been created for families not comfortable with face-to-face school this fall.

Those choosing this option will be enrolled by their "assigned" school, but teachers will be designated to teach remote and face-to-face classes simultaneously.

Technology will be provided for students, including "hot spots" as needed.

Technology is a must for participants in the FCS Virtual Academy, Dr. Schuhler said. There will be no paper/pencil option for those students.

To support Plans B and C, the district is providing electronic devices for all students and hotspots to families which need them to connect.

All school sites are being upfitted to include WiFi in their parking lots and 10 buses will be outfitted with hot spots to be stationed in communities lacking adequate computer access.

Dr. Schuhler stressed that the situation is very fluid and depending on state recommendations and how the pandemic unfolds will determine which approach or approaches the district will be using this year.

The governor's office is expected to make its recommendation soon, but if the pandemic worsens, the schools' approach could change as well, she noted.

Whichever option is chosen, Dr. Schuhler said that "families should accept that face coverings will be needed in many circumstances, including on school buses.

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