Butler High School in Matthews. Photo courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

With the second semester of school well underway, many students across North Carolina hoped they would be back in the classroom at least by the end of the month.

But with record-setting COVID-19 infection rates in January for many counties and the vaccination rollout happening more slowly than anticipated, many school districts are postponing the return to in-person learning.

More than 80% of North Carolina's 100 counties are currently designated red, or critical, by the state's county alert system, which assesses locations based on case rate, positive test rates and hospital impact within the county.

That rate of infection has many districts hesitant to allow students and educators back into the classroom.

Mixed approaches

In Cumberland County — a red, or critical, county — the school board voted Jan. 12 to postpone a return to school under Plan B, which allows operation with reduced capacity until March 15. The district has operated under Plan C, virtual-only learning, since the beginning of the school year.

“Collaborating with the county health director and considering all factors, our positivity rate has been 15% and going up, so we just thought it was in the best interest of our students, families and staff members to delay return until March 15,” said Lindsay Whitley, associate superintendent for communications and community engagement for Cumberland County Schools.

On Jan. 11, Asheville City Schools announced the district also opted to remain under Plan C through March 16, citing both the county’s infection rates and a survey of staff members that found 85% of respondents do not think it is safe to return to in-person learning at this time.

“The tentative date for our large-scale, gradual transition from Plan C to Plan B for pre-K through fifth grade is now set for Wednesday, March 17,” the system said in a statement. “Please understand this date is subject to change based on variations in COVID-19 cases both in our community and across our state.”

Some school systems made different decisions for students of different ages. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools allowed pre-K and elementary students, as well as middle schoolers at K-8 and special needs schools, to return to the classroom in the fall.

In December, the school board voted to suspend in-person learning starting Dec. 14 with a return date of Jan. 19. But with a cluster reported in late December at the Metro School — a facility for students with special needs — and infection rates continuing to climb, the board voted Jan. 14 to delay reentry until at least Feb. 15 for elementary and K-8 students with special needs, and Feb. 22 for middle and high school students. The board will vote on the reentry date on Feb. 9.

“We want kids back in our classrooms, but we only want to do that when it’s safe to do so,” said CMS Superintendent Earnest Wilson.

“It is our intent after the Feb. 9 board meeting, and after looking at the data of the previous week, to share with our board a recommendation based on the data we have.”

While many districts have approached reopening by allowing younger students to return to the classroom first, New Hanover County Schools opted to allow middle and high school students to come back under Plan B in October, citing the ability to more easily social distance with older children.

Elementary students returned under Plan B on Jan. 25. Both groups follow a staggered schedule that combines in-person and virtual learning.

“We wanted to ensure that teachers had enough time to plan and prepare safely for Plan A when it was announced in December,” said Julie Varnam, assistant superintendent of student support for New Hanover County Schools.

“As health trends changed and the board voted to transition to Plan B, district leaders decided to keep elementary students in Plan C so that operations had time to transition to Plan B effectively.”

Making up losses

Concerns about risk of virus infection weigh heavily on these decisions, but the fear of students falling behind — or falling out of school altogether — has further complicated the situation.

According to a Nov. 24 report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 15,000 students — less than 1% — are unaccounted for this school year.

An average of 19% of students in a virtual learning environment — both all-virtual or partially virtual — are not attending class regularly at least four days a week. And among those enrolled in an in-person learning environment, 11% are not attending regularly, at least four days a week.

Attendance isn’t the only issue for many districts. Poor performance rates are growing among students in districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which reported 32% of students with at least one failing grade at the end of the second quarter.

Some students are more affected than others.

“There were four subgroups that caught our awareness,” said Frank Barnes, chief of equity and accountability for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “That’s Black students, Hispanic students, English-learner students and students with disabilities.”

Cumberland County Schools have seen a significant uptick in students receiving failing grades, as well. Some 17% of elementary school students have received a failing grade this year, up from 4% last year. A quarter of middle school students have received an F grade, up from 7% last year, and 24% of high schoolers received a failing grade, compared with 10% last year.

The system is doubling down on its efforts to mitigate that issue, primarily through tutoring programs available to students outside the classroom.

“We have several things in place to support students,” Whitley said. “We are following up with families to provide support, and we also have a variety of tutoring options, including 24-hour access to live services to give support with daily instruction for elementary students. We also have virtual tutoring specifically supporting middle school math students outside traditional school hours. And for high school, we have peer-to-peer tutoring for math, science and English.”

No easy solution

Regardless of approach, most school districts have received pushback, either from those who are eager for children to return to the classroom or from those who don’t think in-person learning is safe at this time.

While distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine brought hope of schools reopening sooner, delays in administering it to educators — who are in Group 3 of the phased distribution plan — make it unclear when school staff members under age 65 will receive their shots.

In the meantime, districts are taking it day by day, monitoring the metrics and asking for patience.

“There are mixed feelings,” Whitley said. “There are many families who are ready for their children to return to in-person learning, as some students likely learn better that way, and some families are pleased that the school system has delayed to March 15 because of the metrics. We’re following the data and making data-driven decisions to keep our students, families and staff members safe.”

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Jennifer Bringle is a Wmforo contributing writer. Based in Greensboro, her articles have appeared in many news publications across the state and nationally. Send an email to [email protected] to contact her or other CPP news team members.

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