The Haywood County School Board voted Wednesday night to delay the option of in-person school for at least a month in order to sort out the many moving parts that must be clicking on all cylinders before kids can return to the classroom.

All students will resume learning on Aug. 17 under a remote-learning model, with a goal of making in-person school an option after the first month. Families would then choose to continue with remote learning from home or send their kids back. Those who return would track in and out on an alternating schedule to keep class size down.

The hybrid model with a delayed transition to in-person school is rapidly becoming the norm for school systems across the state that cite the need for more time to iron out the logistical challenges of in-person school and for parents to see where COVID cases are heading before having to make a decision.

While the school system has been planning for various back-to-school scenarios all summer, the governor’s announcement last week left little over a month to take those plans from concept to reality.

“A transition into an in-person plan ensures we give students the very best opportunity to walk into something that will be successful, rather than just trying to turn on a switch,” School Board Member Bobby Rogers said.

Another benefit to delaying the in-person option is to ensure safety protocols are in place, and that teachers, staff and parents know what’s expected and what the rules are.

“Are people going to understand the social distance requirements when they first get there?” Superintendent Bill Nolte said. ““This is an unusual time and none of us have really done this before, so we need some time for our teachers and families to understand the state rules around reopening. I don’t know that we could do that immediately.”

Delaying the start of in-person school will also give teachers more time to assess whether they feel comfortable returning to school. The school system doesn’t yet know how many teachers, bus drivers, custodians and other critical staff are willing to come back.

“It will take us some time to see who wants to come and who’s willing to come,” Nolte said.

Likewise, the school system will need to gather firm numbers on how many students want to come back. It will then have to make sure the numbers balance — the number of teachers willing to return has to match up with the number of students wanting to return.

“We need to know exactly what everybody plans to do,” Nolte said. “It will take us some time to make sure we have students who are there for in-person learning covered. That is a primary concern.”

Buying time for parents

The delay also gives parents more time to think about the big decision of sending their kids back or keeping them home. Had in-person school started back out of the gate, parents would have been pressured to decide in short order — before having a full understanding of what in-person versus remote schooling will look like.

“They need to take the data and decide for themselves what’s best for their child and what’s the best situation for their household,” School Board Members Bobby Rogers said.

Once the decision point arrives, however, it’s not yet known whether parents who choose to stay remote can switch to in-person down the road.

“What if it is just clicking along and going great, and the parents say ‘Hey I want to transition my kids into in-person?” School Board Member Jim Francis asked.

Associate Superintendent Trevor Putnam said that’s too soon to say how much flexibility there would be.

“Moving forward we will flesh that out, but there can’t be a great deal of switching in and out. Once you devote staffing to in-person versus remote, we couldn’t accommodate large shifts in numbers,” Putnam said.

Countdown to plan B

While the school system hopes to offer an in-person option by Sept. 21 — known as plan B — the reopening process will be monitored and evaluated to determine when it’s both safe and feasible.

“It would be contingent on a lot of things, but that would be our goal to have students back on that day,” Nolte said.

Initially, many school board members had hoped to offer in-person school on Aug. 17, but came to terms with the fact it would be too rushed.

“I want to see those kids in the classroom. Let’s move as fast as we can toward that goal,” said School Board Member Jimmy Rogers.

School leaders agreed.

“Our goal is to get kids back in the building. That’s where we want them. We love them and want them back — safely,” Assistant Superintendent Jill Barker said.

School Board Member Bobby Rogers commended the planning surrounding back-to-school options.

“We have an incredible school system. But it is for a reason. It’s because we have incredible teachers and staff and parents and students that have made this system what it is,” Rogers said. “I would hate to be anywhere else other than Haywood County trying to pull off what we are talking about.”

Falling through the cracks

School Board Member Steven Kirkpatrick was the only one to vote against the plan, instead wanting to offer in-person right away. His top concern was those students without reliable internet and an unstable home life.

“For a month, we will have some students that are going to be falling behind,” Kirkpatrick said. “We have students that do not have that reliable internet. They may also be having family issues. They’ve already been cooped up for four to five months.”

Based on a survey at the end of last school year, the school system estimates around 20 percent of students don’t have reliable high-speed internet access at home.

“We are going to have some students through the crack during that month because they don’t have remote learning,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are not giving every student in Haywood County the education they are supposed to have.”

School Board Member Jimmy Rogers said some kids have fallen behind already.

“From March until now, we’ve already lost a lot of learning capabilities from some children who didn’t have the ability to pipe in virtually,” Rogers said.

Kirkpatrick asked why the entire school system can’t just wait until mid-September to start back after the kinks of in-person school have been worked out.

But the state mandates when school has to go back, and when school must conclude by, along with the required hours of instruction that must be met in between, Nolte said.

One element of the transition plan is to offer in-person instruction for a subset of younger students considered at-risk immediately, rather than waiting for the full transition to in-person school — namely pre-K and identified at-risk elementary students who were struggling academically before COVID-19, plus some students with specialized learning plans.

“We would like to offer some early in-person opportunities for those groups,” Nolte said.

In addition, the school system hopes to offer orientation for students, particularly kindergartners or high school freshmen, to establish a connection with their new school and a walk-through of schooldays protocols.

“We think it is very important to do some transition activities up front, especially with young children,” Nolte said.

The digital divide

When remote learning resumes in August, it will be much “more intense” than the remote learning students saw last spring. There were no grades nor accountability for students who didn’t complete assignments, and even those who began remote learning with gusto began to slip as the weeks wore on.

That won’t be the case this time.

“Before it was a lot of grace and generosity in really unsettling times,” Barker said. “This time it’s school. It’s a school day.”

In the spring, teachers uploaded assignments and videos to a platform called Google Classroom, and students then did their work on their own schedule — if at all.

This time, teachers will be providing real time virtual instruction, where students will be expected to log-in during specific times.

“There needs to be that interaction with that teacher every single day,” Barker said. “Attendance will be taken. That is going to be a change.”

Kirkpatrick asked about those students without reliable internet who can’t join the real time instruction.

“How are you going to count that attendance?” Kirkpatrick said.

“It is a very difficult situation,” Barker said. “It’s not going to be perfect. But we are trying to work through those issues.”

For families who simply can’t afford internet service, various types of assistance is available, like providing WiFi hotspots. But those rely on cell service.

“There are places where those don’t work,” Nolte said.

In those remote areas, lack of access isn’t a matter of economics. The infrastructure just isn’t there.

During remote learning in the spring, parents would shuttle their kids to a parking lot to get on a wifi hotspot, where they would sit in the car to download assignments and upload their work.

Students weren’t the only ones who struggled with connectivity.

“We have some teachers that live where there’s no internet access either,” School Board Member Jimmy Rogers said.

School Board Member Bobby Rogers, a pastor at Dellwood Baptist Church, said his church plans to make internet access available in its parking lot and called on other churches throughout the county to do the same.

“We have 185 churches in the county. They are well spread out in the communities,” Rogers said.

Shifting gears

The school system will once again provide laptops for any student who needs one in grades 2-12. Students in K-1 will get iPads. That’s a change from the spring, when parents of K-1 students picked up packets of paperwork each week.

The school system secured a grant over the summer to buy the iPads for K-1 students, who do better with the tactile experience of a tablet as opposed to a laptop.

Distribution of devices will be done the week before school starts, so students will be ready to begin on with remote learning Aug. 17. Students will also be given their class and teacher assignments that week.

Those could change when the school system makes the transition to offer in-person school. Students would have to be shuffled around according to who’s coming back versus who’s staying remote, and then paired with teachers accordingly.

Some teachers will become all-remote teachers, and take over while others will become classroom teachers — and the students apportioned among them.

Students who stay with remote will be assigned to a remote teacher and continue to get daily virtual instruction.

Students who come back will be assigned to an in-person teacher, who will manage two groups of students tracking in and out on alternating weeks. Instruction will be frontloaded the weeks students are in school, but they will be working largely independently the weeks they track out, with limited support from their teacher.

“That following week, the teacher will be teaching the other half of the kids,” Barker explained.

The delay in starting in-person school will allow teachers to collaborate on how to balance that.

“We will be putting our best minds together to build this thing out to a real in-person learning opportunity. That’s one thing this transition time does for us,” Bobby Rogers said.

Depending how many choose the in-person option, students may even be split into three groups — attending one week and tracking out for two.

Ready to learn

Haywood County Schools did a survey late last week to gauge how parents, students and staff felt about returning to school. Among parents, one-third of respondents said they didn’t want to send their kids back, and another third were on the fence.

“If you just don’t want to come, there will be a remote learning option for you,” Nolte said.

But school leaders acknowledged the delay of in-person school will be a blow to those who are more than ready to come back.

“A lot of them really want us to open schools. They want that opportunity and feel like they are entitled to it,” Nolte said.

The survey broke out responses by students, parents and staff. Those who were most eager to return were students, with over 50 percent saying wanted to come back.

“We were very excited about that,” Nolte said. “But we also want to make sure we are ready.”

School board members said the decision has been heart-wrenching.

“I have honestly toiled over this decision. Is this perfect? No. But we are trying to do the best with what we got for the students of Haywood County,” said School Board Member Larry Henson. “I know without a doubt our staff will do a great job with what we’ve got to work with.”

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