UNION COUNTY — The Union County Board of Education (BOE) has voted 8-1 to maintain their current plan to add a second day of in-person instruction for Pre-Kindergarten through the 12th grade. The vote was taken during a special called meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 22).

Students will attend school in-person for two days a week starting on Tuesday, Sept. 29. The other three days of the week involve remote learning.

At their regular meeting on Sept. 1, the Board proposed adding a second day but needed time to research and strategize how it would implement the idea while following regulations set by the state under Plan B (hybrid of in-person and remote learning). They planned then to allow students to return for a second day on the Sept. 29.

Principals are expected to send out information about assigned days to families this week. Students will either attend Monday and Tuesday in person or Wednesday and Thursday in person. Friday will remain as a remote learning day for all students. There will be three days of remote learning and two days of in-person instruction during the week.

“When creating schedules, schools will work with families to keep siblings and members of the same households together for in-person instruction days,” according to a presentation by Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan.

Elementary schoolsGovernor Roy Cooper announced on Sept. 17 that elementary public school students could return to school for five days a week starting Oct. 5. He said school districts could allow elementary students to return under that plan if they think it’s best for them.

Houlihan suggested for elementary school students to go to two-days a week starting Sept. 29, but then on Oct. 26, elementary students would attend school in-person Monday through Thursday with Friday remaining as a remote learning day. Oct. 26 was chosen because it is the first day of the second quarter.

“This transition would allow schools to become better acquainted with conducting the health/safety checks for larger groups of students over several weeks,” per the Houlihan’s presentation.

Setting a later date for four days of in-person instruction gives families more time to decide if they want to register for a virtual option.

When students return to school on Sept. 29 for two days a week (and elementary on Oct. 26 for four days a week), Union County Public Schools (UCPS) will continue to complete daily temperature checks and screenings for students and anyone who enters a school building.

Social distancing protocols will be required for visitors entering a school building and the number of visitors will continue to be limited after Oct. 26 for elementary schools. All elementary school students will wear face masks in school and on school buses. All staff will wear face masks in school buildings and offices.

CapacityAs the school district adds more days of in-person instruction, social distancing may require schools to spread classes throughout the campus. Instead of meeting in a regular classroom, schools may need to utilize cafeterias, gyms or auditoriums as alternative classrooms to allow for greater social distancing, according to Houlihan.

During the special called meeting, Chairwoman of the BOE Melissa Merrell, clarified information about capacity. The school district, she said, would not double the capacity of students returning.

Eighteen percent of students signed up in the Virtual Academy, which is remote learning throughout the school year.

“In all fairness” Merrell said, and “in leveling the numbers ... the schools would literally be at like a 40% capacity not a 50% capacity, because not 100% signed up for Plan B.”

“When they level, going to two days we’re looking at about 40% capacity inside the building, not 50%,” Merrell said. “We’re not bringing back half of the enrollment,” she said because some families signed up for the Virtual Academy.

Virtual Academy optionRecognizing the workload for teachers that have to keep up with students both in the classroom and those enrolled in the Virtual Academy, the BOE is in talks to phase out Plan B for elementary school students. Instead, the idea is to give families the option to either send their child to school in-person or registering for the Virtual Academy.

According to Houlihan, some educators will teach virtually only. Students who enroll in the Virtual Academy will either be taught by someone from their school or from their school cluster. Students will have access to live and on-demand instruction.

“PK students who opted into five days of remote learning should contact their school to continue with this model,” per Houlihan’s presentation.

Families who do not wish to send their child or children to school for in-person instruction may enroll in the Virtual Academy. Those families can apply for the academy through Scribbles (https://ucpsncc.scriborder.com/). The application period is from Sept. 25 through Oct. 4.

“Due to teacher assignments and scheduling, moving forward, K-5 students who select the virtual academy must commit to this option for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year,” according to Houlihan’s presentation.

‘I believe they were heard’

During the special called meeting, BOE At-Large member, Rev. Jimmy H. Bention, Sr., said school principals gave Houlihan a “thumb’s up” to add a second day of in-person instruction because they felt confident they were ready to receive students. However, Bention asked how much input from teachers and parents was sought from principals. Specifically, he asked if teachers and families were heard.

Bention was president on a PTSO and co-chair of a site-based team at Monroe High School for many years. He said if more communication existed between families, parent-teacher organizations, site-based teams and principals then that would alleviate the amount of emails BOE members get from people expressing their emotions and/or concerns.

“I believe they were heard,” Houlihan said in response. Houlihan said each school in the district has a site-based decision team that includes teachers and parents. He said he assumed they’ve been meeting virtually since the beginning of the school year. He said discussions after the Sept. 1 BOE meeting would include feedback from teachers and families.

Houlihan explained that every school has a teacher representative that acts as a liaison between the school and the school board. He said he met with those representatives on Monday (Sept. 21) to talk about “moving forward under Plan B.”

“While I can say I really don’t know about parent outreach other than what a school may have done through their site-based team and obviously the emails I personally received from parents about adding a second day and those things, I’d like to believe we’ve engaged stakeholders to the best of our abilities since Sept. 1 on this through those various structures,” Houlihan said.

Bention would be “saddened to know” if parent-teacher organizations were not “functioning in a climate like this.”

He said the voices behind emails sent to him expressing concern are not dissimilar from the ones he received when he served as president of a PTSO. He said emails members of the BOE are receiving from parents, teachers and/or community members would be better handled by those serving on parent-teacher organizations.

“As having intrical knowledge of those organizations, I know there’s a whole lot of steps of people that they could seek to get information from well before they get there, but these are turbulent times,” Bention said.

Merrell said: “In the perfect world, principals should be bringing concerns from their school community from their site-base, from their PTOs to those meetings to let the superintendent know the concerns.”

Houlihan has meetings with principals from every school. Merrell explained part of the purpose of those meetings is for principals to share feedback and/or concerns from parents, teachers and site-bases with the superintendent.

Merrell said she understood the point Bention made, but said the perfect scenario she mentioned was not a reality. Bention agreed noting the emails he received listing concerns people have.

Houlihan said he didn’t have an answer as to how much input from PTOs and site-based teams was sought after, but with help from Dr. Brad Breedlove, chief academic officer, Houlihan would find out and return with a formal answer.

Merrell added that with almost every email sent to her, the sender had not spoken to their school principal.