By Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice on February 8, 2021
With the Dare County Board of Education meeting tomorrow to discuss re-opening the county’s public-school classrooms, momentum certainly appears to have been building for some kind of return to in-person learning. And much has changed since the board voted 5-2 on Jan. 12 to have all students stay with remote learning through the third quarter of the school year.
One of those changes is the trajectory of the pandemic itself. While there are serious concerns that circulating variations of the virus could trigger a new surge in infections, for now cases have trended significantly downward from where they were a month ago — in the U.S., in North Carolina and in Dare County. And at his Feb. 2 press briefing, Governor Roy Cooper strongly advocated for returning students to school buildings.
“Now it’s time to get our children back in the classroom,” he asserted. “Students can be in the classroom safely with the right safety protocols.” During that briefing, the governor also stated that students and their families who wished to remain in remote learning would be allowed to do so, something that would be expected to be an option in any Dare County re-opening plan.
Another significant change is the vaccination of Dare County Schools (DCS) staff. When the Dare County Board of Education voted to return all students to remote learning on Nov. 13, the key reason cited was a teacher shortage, with more than 80 teachers unavailable to work at that point due to either COVID infection or quarantine. Then the vaccine arrived.
With 1,100 doses of vaccine provided by Vidant Hospital in Greenville, Dare County held a first-dose vaccination clinic for DCS staff, as well as law enforcement officials and COA personnel, at a Jan. 23 clinic at First Flight High School. The DCS said more than 600 school staffers registered for that first clinic. The second doses will be offered to school staffers on Feb. 13.
In a January email to school families announcing the first DCS staff vaccine clinic, Superintendent John Farrelly wrote: “I know that the next question in the community will focus on how this [staff vaccination clinic] impacts the remote learning decision…”
Another reality is that North Carolina school districts are increasingly opening up their classrooms to in-person learning. At his Feb. 2 briefing, Cooper said that at least 90 of the state’s 115 school districts had implemented some form of classroom instruction. Hours after he spoke, the Hyde County Board of Education voted to return students to the Mattamuskeet School Campus three days a week. Arrangements for the Ocracoke School, still under construction, have not been released publicly.
About a month earlier, on Jan. 7, the Currituck County Board of Education voted to allow high school students — who had been learning remotely — to return to classrooms under a hybrid model. (The county’s elementary and middle school students have had the option of hybrid classroom learning since the fall.) At that meeting, Currituck Schools Superintendent Matt Lutz told board members that 155 school staff members had already received COVID vaccine.
The expected vote on school re-opening on Feb. 9 will be the fifth time that the seven-member Dare Board of Education has voted on the issue since schools were first shut down in March 2020. That is in part a reflection of the changing circumstances of the pandemic.
On July 20, by a 5-2 vote, the members voted to begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students in remote learning. On Oct. 1, they voted unanimously to send elementary school students back to the classroom five days a week with middle school and high school students returning on a hybrid schedule. About six weeks later, on Nov. 13, with the shortage of teachers, the board voted to return to all-remote learning by a 6-1 vote, a decision it extended on Jan. 12 and one it will revisit on Feb. 9.
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