By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on November 14, 2020
The 6-1 vote on Nov. 13 by the Dare County Board of Education to return all students to remote learning was made after a presentation by Superintendent John Farrelly stressed the idea that teacher shortages and the dwindling pool of available substitute teachers had left the district unable to adequately staff classrooms.
Since re-opening classrooms on Oct. 26, the district has seen 17 positive COVID-19 cases. Currently, 85 of its teachers are not able to work because they have tested positive for the virus or have been identified by health officials as direct contacts and are under a 14-day quarantine order. Several hundred students have also been quarantined and there have already been a half dozen school closures in order to perform deep cleaning and sanitizing.
“With the high numbers of staff that are coming out of our buildings, it’s impacting the quality of instruction across the entire county,” asserted Farrelly during his presentation. He cited recent instances when a physical education teacher filled in for a math teacher, data managers monitored the lunchroom and teacher assistants had to provide instruction.
During a typical year, Farrelly said, the district relies on a pool of roughly 250 substitute teachers. That number decreased to 120 substitutes when schools opened last month and has since shrunk to its current 88.
The two-hour Nov. 13 emergency board of education meeting, which attracted 1,000 listeners who tuned into the live audio, became contentious at times.
Addressing the large number of students and staff being quarantined, Farrelly outlined for the board the chain of events that occurs once the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) notifies the school that there has been a positive COVID-19 case.
Stressing that it is the health department, and not the Dare County Schools, that makes the determination of who to quarantine after it has completed contact tracing, the superintendent explained that if a student who tests positive was in the classroom during his or her contagious period, the entire class is quarantined.
Both Board Members Joe Tauber and Harvey Hess grilled Farrelly on the quarantine protocols being implemented in the schools by the Dare County DHHS.
“I’m not blaming what you and your staff is doing,” Tauber said. “I’m blaming the quarantining system that is in place here because it doesn’t seem to follow CDC guidelines and seems to make it out of thin air, quite frankly. And quite frankly, the system that’s in place now is a setup for failure.”
In response, Farrelly asserted that DHHS Director Sheila Davies and her team are following North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.
“Obviously, there are situations where someone could be in a room and not be within a direct contact,” Farrelly acknowledged. “But what I would say is that [Davies] is erring on the side of safety and trying to mitigate the potential spread. And I think I would agree that 14 days of quarantine…I think is sound strategy.”
Stating that there is no way to measure the movement of students and teachers in the classroom, he added that, “I think it would be reckless if [DHHS] started to pinpoint three or four kids who may be sitting around that student…and not other students. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of these guidelines and erring on the side of caution is it is taking a significant number of staff members out of Dare County Schools. And this is part of what we’re dealing with and our primary concerns.”
Farrelly also stated that there have been a handful of isolated incidents where students and staff have come to school with symptoms and where some high school students have attempted to return to the building before their 14-day quarantine was over.
Harvey Hess, the board member who voted against returning to remote learning, also questioned the quarantining procedures. Noting that he had been a teacher for 35 years, Hess suggested that if teachers weren’t up for the job, they should look for other employment.
“You’ve got 10 students in front of you, it’s time to step up. Everybody’s working, everybody is going to Publix…You know, all these folks that are out there that are doing their jobs every single day don’t really feel that understanding of someone saying, ‘Well I’ve got 10 kids in the classroom or I’ve got this many people on virtual.’ If you’re a teacher, it’s your job to teach. And if you don’t feel like you can do the job, get another job.”
In response, Board Chair Bea Basnight said the issue before them was not having enough teachers or substitutes. “Teachers are working every single day, sometimes from eight in the morning until midnight doing the work they need to do,” Basnight said. “If you can’t have a teacher in front of a class, you can’t have a class. We are at that point. We are at a breaking point…”
Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Sandy Kinzel said that while the district is happy to accept offerings of help and volunteerism, “That’s not going to solve the inequities that we’re seeing when parents are taking their kids from face-to-face and putting them in virtual, when we have teachers who are teaching virtual who have 170 kids assigned to them.”
Speaking to the fact that 80 percent of secondary virtual teachers are also teaching face-to-face classes, Kinzel added, “We are stretching our teachers so thin…I’m concerned for what we are asking of our teachers when they are teaching during their planning period to help us provide that virtual option that we are required to do, while teaching students face to face and having the volume of students assigned to them. There’s a breaking point.”
This week marked the third time that the Dare Board of Education has voted on how to offer instruction to students in light of the COVID pandemic. On July 20, it voted 5-2 to open with remote learning for everyone for the first quarter of the school year, with Tauber and Hess dissenting.
On Oct. 1, the board voted unanimously to send PreK-5 students back to the classroom full-time while offering a hybrid remote-and-classroom model for students in grades 6-12. The next vote, which came a month and a half later, was to once again teach all the system’s students remotely.