The countdown is officially on: students will walk through the doors of 15 school buildings across Haywood County on Monday, Sept. 28.
The 74 percent of students who have chosen to return to school will be split into two groups — an A group and a B group. Each group will attend school for a week, then track out for a week in order to keep class size down per state mandate.
The school board voted Monday night on the back-to-school timeline, but plans for exactly how it will be pulled off remain a work in progress.
Parents don’t yet know which group their students will be in, let alone what types of protocols and safety precautions will be in place. They also don’t know what to expect the weeks their kids aren’t in school — namely what level of instruction or engagement students will get during those off weeks.
“I know there is a lot of concern from parents about the communication of how this is going to look and how this is going to work,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said during the school board meeting Monday night. “I recommend we do as much as we can to communicate what it will look like and what it won’t look like.”
School board members said they have been fielding calls, emails and texts from parents over recent days complaining about the lack of information provided — including some texts coming in to school board members as the Monday night meeting was in progress.
“We’ve gotten multiple calls from parents and teachers saying they are still confused about how everything is going to roll out,” School Board Member Bobby Rogers said. “Every person in every school system needs to understand exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it. It needs to be crystal clear by the end of next week.”
School board member Larry Rogers agreed parents should be provided a detailed plan.
“Even down to who’s going to clean the rooms,” he said.
Meanwhile, individual schools are still figuring out how to provide instruction for the 26 percent of students who aren’t coming back but choose to remain on all-remote learning.
When parents were asked to make their choice last week — to either send their kids back or keep them remote — they were largely making the decision in a vacuum without a clear picture of what either option would look like.
But schools faced a conundrum: what the options looked like depended on how many students signed up for each one.
“It would have been nice if they had given us an idea of what the options were. They left it so vague you were agreeing to something without knowing what you were agreeing to,” said Veronica Lucas, a mother of two elementary students and a middle schooler.
Lucas doesn’t have high-speed internet where she lives in Fines Creek, but uses her smartphone as a hotspot for her kids to do their remote learning. She even bought a second smartphone as an additional hotspot to make it work.
Despite the challenges, Lucas is opting to stay remote — but not because she’s worried about her kids getting COVID.
“My main reason is all these mandates. I would love to have them back in school, but the mask thing is my big issue. I have issues with putting my kids in masks all day,” she said.
Lucas was also concerned that in-person school would be stripped of the things that make a long school day bearable. Eating lunch at their desk in the classrooms and being isolated with the same small group of kids all day, every day, wouldn’t be the same.
“It’s not school as they know it. It will be more like a juvenile detention facility,” Lucas said.
Lindsay Andrews, a Canton mom of a first and sixth grader, also opted to stay on remote learning — a decision made in part due to the lack of information on what in-person school would actually look like.
“I think they could have given us a better idea of ‘They are going to do so this’ or ‘They are going to do that,’” Andrews said. “I would rather them be in school and they would rather be in school, but now we’ll be added to a statistic of people not wanting to come back because of the virus. But that’s not the reason. It’s because I didn’t know what my kids’ days would look like.”
While reasons vary among the 26 percent of families opting to continue remote learning from home, some are indeed concerned about COVID, including Jennifer Prouty of Maggie Valley.
Prouty, a cafeteria worker at Waynesville Middle, took a leave of absence without pay for the year in order to keep her kids at home.
“I just can’t risk it. There’s only a small chance something would happen, but I am not willing to take that chance,” Prouty said.
Prouty was concerned about her children mixing with other kids whose families may not be taking COVID seriously outside school.
“You don’t know if people are taking precautions and then your kid could be sitting beside them,” she said.
Like so many families, Prouty and her husband sat down for a long talk to decide what to do. And like so many families, they were split. He was leaning toward sending them back, she wasn’t.
While remote learning is a train wreck for some kids — they don’t have a parent who can help them, they don’t have good internet, or can’t pay attention to a computer screen — Prouty said her kids have been thriving with remote learning.
She feels blessed she was in a position to stay home with them. She bought maps of the world and the U.S. for the wall, a model of the solar system, got a big whiteboard and set up a dedicated learning room.
“My husband is now loving it, too. He is enjoying seeing what they are learning,” Prouty said.
For Kathleen Penland, a single working mom of a kindergartner, staying home wasn’t an option, however.
“It is really difficult to do virtual learning if you are a working parent. If you have to work, what are parents supposed to do?” Penland said. “I feel like from the top to the bottom, the whole thing has been really poorly mismanaged. Nobody knows anything, and it is up in the air.”
When Haywood County Schools announced it would not reopen for in-person learning until part-way into the fall, she made the hard decision to enroll her kid at Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school, which reopened with in-person school in early August.
She had been looking forward to her son attending North Canton Elementary, which is close to their house, but couldn’t wait to see how it would play out.
“I really wanted to go to that school and be part of that community, but I just couldn’t virtual school a 5-year-old,” Penland said.
Pulling off a whole new form of schooling in short order has been a Herculean undertaking.
“I appreciate the teachers, custodians, bus drivers — everybody that’s making this work,” School Board Member Steven Kirkpatrick said. “It is not perfect. Nobody ever said it was going to be. But I would like to thank them for doing what they do.”
Schools not only had to figure out how to teach rotating groups of students, but how to teach a third group of students staying on remote learning.
“Our teachers and staff have done an absolute remarkable job to reinvent Haywood County Schools since March,” School Board Member Bobby Rogers said.
The percentage of students opting for in-person school is higher than a preliminary survey conducted in July, where 40 percent of parents expressed reservations about sending their kids back.
“The response has been overwhelming. We are excited to know that people want to return to school in person,” Superintendent Bill Nolte said. “School just isn’t the same without students, faculty, and staff in the buildings.”
One problem schools are encountering is they don’t have enough teachers to go around. At most elementary schools, there aren’t enough students in any given grade who opted for the remote-only learning option to comprise a full class.
After allocating teachers to cover the kids coming back in-person, they can’t spare an additional teacher for a remote-only class that would have just a few kids in it.
“We’ve had no additional teachers given to us from the state but have the mandate to offer both,” Assistant Superintendent Jill Barker said.
Teachers can’t be expected to juggle both two rotating groups of in-person students plus a remote-only cohort, Nolte said.
“We will not ask any teacher to do an A and B rotation, plus the remote only,” Nolte said.
But Barker said some teachers might be doing that. Some teachers have volunteered to incorporate remote-only students into the classroom instruction they’re doing for in-person students — possibly by live streaming the class for students at home.
Meanwhile, another question was what type of instruction, if any, the in-person students would get the week they tracked out.
“What is group B going to be doing while group A is in class?” school board member Jim Francis asked.
Teachers would be hard-pressed to attend to the group of in-person students in front of them any given week, while also attending to the group that’s at home that week.
While instruction will largely be front-loaded the week kids are in school, they won’t be left totally on their own during the off weeks either.
“There would be some opportunity for them to have contact with their teacher and make sure they are doing the right kinds of things,” Nolte said.
The start date for in-person school is one week later than initially hoped. School officials had set a target date of resuming in-person school by Sept. 21.
The one week delay is a result of the cyber attack that crippled the the school systems’ computer network, causing school operations to be shut down for a week shortly after remote learning started in August.
“Unfortunately we did have a cyber attack and that shut down our communication services and network services and really put us behind about a week,” Nolte said.