By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on March 10, 2021
During an update on the re-opening of schools to in-person learning, Superintendent Dr. John Farrelly told the Dare County Board of Education at its March 9 meeting that the state could possibly move from a six-foot to a three-foot social distancing protocol for grades 6-K in the near future.
Such a move could open the door for school districts across the state to increase face-to-face instruction time at those grade levels since more students could be accommodated in school buildings under that new protocol.
Farrelly, during the first televised meeting of the board, reported that representatives of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services indicated that those changes could come “rapidly,” during a March 4 N.C. Board of Education meeting.
Currently, Dare County elementary schools are open for in-person learning Monday through Thursday. Grades 6-12 are on a hybrid schedule, with one cohort attending Mondays and Tuesdays and the second on Wednesdays and Thursdays, due to a state requirement that six feet of social distancing is maintained at all times in those grades. Fridays are dedicated to at-home independent learning for all grade levels.
“So, we’re watching and certainly paying attention at the state level…and we are planning accordingly, if and when some of these mandates change,” noted Farrelly.
On March 10, Governor Roy Cooper announced an agreement with state leaders to safely reopen schools, one that requires all elementary schools in the state to operate under Plan A, which requires full-time in-person learning. Under the agreement – outlined in Senate Bill 220 – middle and high schools can choose to operate either under Plan A or Plan B, the latter being the hybrid option.
Farrelly, in a March 10 letter to Dare County School families addressing the agreement, indicated that Dare County Schools already meets the guidelines laid out in the agreement. He also noted that the state measure requires that virtual-only learning remain an option for families. The superintendent indicated there would be more information later about the agreement’s impact on Dare County Schools.
At the March 9 Dare Board of Education meeting, Farrelly reported that there are currently about 1,200 Dare County students who have opted to not return to in-person learning and continue with the full virtual learning option. Approximately 875 of those virtual learners are in grades 6-12. In addition, Farrelly said that in the last 72 hours alone, there have been 30 students in those grades who switched from face-to-face to virtual learning.
Noting that he thought that number of virtual-only learners would be lower, Farrelly added: “We would love to see more students come back for face-to-face delivery. In the meantime, we’ll work through for families to have that option. I firmly believe they’ll have that option through the rest of the school year.”
Farrelly also said that the higher numbers of virtual learners, coupled with anticipated changes in social distancing protocols at the state level, “means there is likely the possibility, at some point, where we could consider bringing more students back into our 6-12 model.”
The Dare County Board of Education is expected to revisit its in-person learning protocols in early April.
Meanwhile, the superintendent also offered a promising report to the board in terms of COVID-19 positive cases and resulting quarantines in the school district.
Since re-opening classrooms on March 1, Farrelly said that only one staff member had tested positive for COVID-19, with three staff members quarantined. There have been six positive cases among students, with 42 students currently quarantined. The majority of student cases, he said, have been sports-related.
Those numbers represent a contrast with the numbers from last fall after the district opened to in-person learning in late October. At that time, positive COVID-19 cases and quarantining sidelined more than 80 staffers and forced schools to close in mid-November.
Overall, Farrelly’s remarks on March 9 were optimistic when it came to re-opening.
“Our students are joyous, pleased to be back, he said. “The energy in our buildings is fabulous and I don’t think our re-opening could have been any better.”
Noting that the past year has been frustrating, and at times scary, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, Farrelly asserted that, “Day by day, it seems like we’re getting to a place where there’s more normalcy in our schools. We still have challenges before us, but with each passing day we feel like there are better times ahead.”