LOUISBURG -- The Franklin County Board of Education changed course Monday night in the wake of a growing COVID-19 pandemic and decided that local schools will open virtually this year, for at least the first nine weeks of the year which begins on Monday, Aug. 17.
The decision came after a presentation by School Superintendent Rhonda Schuhler that ended with her recommendation to begin school virtually, joining at least 45 other school districts across the state which will offer remote-learning only for at least part of the year.
This decision affects all Franklin County schools, including the Early College High School which is affiliated with Vance-Granville Community College and which is planning to open virtually.
"Franklin County Schools is fully committed to providing all students with equal access to quality educational opportunities in a safe and productive environment," said Dr. Schuhler.
"During these unprecedented times, we are working tirelessly to proactively plan for and provide the safest and most accessible educational options for all FCS families. At this time, Plan C is the safest and most viable option available."
Prior to Monday night, the district was planning to follow Gov. Roy Cooper's recommendation and open under a hybrid option known as Plan B. That plan had students attending face-to-face classes two days per week and virtual classes three days per week. About half of the students would attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Wednesdays and Thursday, thus keeping school buildings at about 50 percent capacity to help ensure the safety of students and staff.
The governor did, however, give districts the option of opening virtually, meaning that no students would be in face-to-face classes and that's the option that school officials here decided to take as the virus numbers continue to increase in Franklin County.
Dr. Schuhler presented statistics detailing how the virus is affecting Franklin County residents and said that a one-question survey of school staff indicated that 70.7 percent said they had serious reservations about opening schools with students in face-to-face classes, even part-time and said they wanted the district to consider opening under Plan C.
Only 29.3 percent said they were comfortable opening under Plan B, the combination of face-to-face classes and remote learning.
The most recent figures show that Franklin County has at least 705 confirmed cases of the virus, up from 641 a week earlier and has suffered 23 deaths.
This year, Franklin County Schools offered parents the option of sending their children to a Virtual Academy for all grade levels -- and expected perhaps 1,500 students would take that option.
But by Monday night, 3,919 students were enrolled in the Virtual Academy, about 48 percent of the expected enrollment this year and an indication that parents were making decisions based on what they perceived were the safest options for their children.
Students in the Virtual Academy will be able to return to face-to-face classes when those are offered. if they choose, school officials said.
Given that nearly half the expected enrollment is already signed up for remote-only classes and because of the growing numbers of virus cases, the school board unanimously agreed to join Wake, Vance, Granville, Durham, Nash and Johnston county schools by beginning virtually.
Under Plan C as adopted Monday night, all students will be receiving instruction five days per week virtually. This puts Virtual Academy students and all other students on the same plan during Plan C.
Virtual Academy students will still be assigned to the Virtual Academy for future reference. This means that when the district shifts to Plan A or B later during the year, the Virtual Academy students would continue to be able to participate in the Virtual Academy until they no longer choose to do so, Dr. Schuhler told the board. Students may elect to switch back to Plan A or B along with non-Virtual Academy students at any point when either of those options become available, or they can remain with the Virtual Academy through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, school officials said.
Students in the Virtual Academy will be able to participate in sports and extracurricular activities at their "home" school. (However all sports are on hold until at least Sept. 1 by state order.)
According to the decision of the school board Monday night, all schools will operate virtually for at least the first nine weeks, ending Oct. 23, when school officials will re-evaluate the COVID-19 situation and decide how to proceed for the remainder of the year.
"The situation is changing regularly and rapidly," Dr. Schuhler told the board, again calling it a "very fluid situation."
But, she emphasized that the district must focus on the safety of both students and staff and find ways to offer quality instruction.
Franklin County's virtual schools will be "very different (this fall) from last spring," Dr. Schuhler said.
In the coming year, there will be a "full day of instruction, with breaks" and the virtual classes "will mirror (traditional) instruction as much as possible remotely," she told the board.
Unlike in the spring, attendance will be taken and students will be earning traditional letter grades instead of the "pass/fail" marks they received in the spring, she said.
"Students will receive all five days of instruction five days a week, virtually," the superintendent emphasized to the board.
Under Plan C, staff and teachers will report for work onsite at their assigned school daily from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Classified staff will provide food services and deliver food, provide mobile hot spots, clean facilities, provide childcare to staff (elementary and middle grades only) children, offer technology assistance, and complete other tasks in support of successful remote learning plan implementation.
Dr. Schuhler said the goal will be to continue to provide as many meals as possible to students although funding questions remain.
All safety protocols for staff (temperature checks, health assessments, masks and social distancing) will be in place and the plan is supported by the local health department.
Employees with unique health circumstances would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and reasonable accommodations will be made with documentation.
"These are difficult times," said board chair Paige Sayles. "But everyone is working hard to come up with the best plan possible" to educate students.
"This thing is real," said board member Tommy Piper, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"But school safety is our priority," he said. Piper, a former school administrator, said that during his working career, he focused on school security -- cameras, locks and other ways to keep students and staff safe from a possible intruder.
"But this intruder is invisible," he noted, emphasizing that it is important to keep students, staff, parents and grandparents safe. He made the motion to move to the all-virtual Plan C.
His motion was seconded by board member Dr. Elizabeth Keith and passed unanimously.
Board member Meghan Jordan said that during her talks with teachers and staff, she found that "most staff are really anxious to begin class" as normally as possible.
"Not everybody is going to be happy," she said of the decision to move to Plan C "but they need to realize how much thought and research has gone into this" decision.
"Most of us feel that way as well," Sayles said.
"But safety must be our first concern," added Dr. Keith. "There won't be much learning going on if safety is not the first" priority.
School board member Debra Brodie said she can't wait for the day when "students can go back all day everyday." But in the meantime, she said, "all of us are called to do a little extra to make every child and every parent feel supported."
Franklin County Schools' remote learning plan states that each of the district's students will receive an electronic device by Aug. 10 for use during the 2020-2021 school year. The rollout plan for these devices is outlined on FCS' technology webpage: https://www.fcschools.net/Page/141. K-1 students will receive a tablet, and students in grades 2-12 will receive Chromebooks.
Each of FCS' 16 schools offer free Wi-Fi access from certain areas of their parking lots. The district will also provide mobile hot spots through school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi. In addition, FCS offers individual Wi-Fi based on availability of those devices. Franklin County Schools is also working with businesses in the county that are willing to offer free Wi-Fi access to students.