JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Education held a special called meeting on July 22 at the administrative offices annex of Ashe County Schools. The purpose of this meeting was to plan and evaluate the reopening of schools under Plan B and to discuss details about Ashe Online.

Due to COVID-19, a maximum of 10 people were allowed to be present in the room and those physically in attendance were Chairman C.B. Jones, Vice Chairman Dr. Lee Beckworth and board members Keith McClure and Polly Jones.

Other staff members and ACS personnel present were K-12 and Federal Programs Director Julie Taylor, Director of Human Resources/Public Information Officer Roy Putman, Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron, Maintenance Director Jerry Baker and Director of Technology Amy Walker.

Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox and board member Dianne Eldreth participated in the meeting digitally via Zoom Video Communications.

Cox led the discussion by providing an overview of the safety precautions which will be implemented for face-to-face instruction, the results of the parent survey and further details about the completely virtually option offered by ACS called Ashe Online.

On July 14, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina schools may choose to reopen under Plan B. Under this plan, schools will operate under 50 percent capacity with moderate social distancing.

“We are trying to get as many students back to school as possible, but I think as you all know and I hope the community knows, the safety of our students and teachers and staff is our number one priority,” Cox said.

According to Cox, ACS plans to bring back as many students for as many days as possible under the guidelines that the state has provided to them.

As far as Plan B’s implementation in Ashe County, there are several requirements which each school must adhere to.

Social distancing will be maintained and all students and staff will be required to wear cloth face coverings.

According to Cox this requirement will be non-negotiable, but in the case that students or staff are unable to wear a mask, doctor’s notes may be applicable.

“For the most part, everybody must wear the mask. This includes on the school bus and inside and outside the building,” Cox said.

The guidance they have received from the state said there should be an opportunity during the day, if possible, for students and staff to remove the mask for a certain period of time. However, even in outdoor locations such as activity fields, they will be expected to wear a mask.

Guidance received by the school system from the state level continues to change daily regarding requirements associated with COVID-19.

“We do not have any indication that it will stop or not change, I think we’re just going to have to have some grace as it happens,” Cox said. “And I hope that we are implementing something and making our decisions based on being proactive and long-term versus something that is the decision of the hour.”

Five cloth masks will be provided by the state to be issued to every student and staff member. These masks had not yet been received as of the morning of July 22. Students will be responsible for keeping up with their face masks and parents are encouraged to ensure these masks are washed daily.

Cox said right now students will have more masks than they need to come to school during the week since they will only be attending face-to-face instruction twice a week. As time progresses, if the state announces that students are able to return five days a week, students will have a mask for each day of the week.

According to Baker, he has ordered 14,000 masks in addition to the ones which will be provided by the state. The school system currently has 4,000 that County Extension Director Travis Birdsell has guaranteed and set aside for them. In addition, ACS has 6,000 disposable masks that Baker currently has onhand.

There will be requirements to protect vulnerable populations and schools will provide coping and resilience measures to address the social and emotional health of students and staff.

Prior to entering any school buildings there will be monitoring which includes temperature checks and attestation of symptoms.

As far as sanitation, the school system has conducted several Zoom meetings with AppHealthCare and the school safety teams for guidance.

ACS has purchased safety and sanitizing materials including Vital Oxide disinfectant. They have also purchased more than 74,500 pairs of gloves and have already received most of those. These gloves will be used by nurses and staff as needed.

Face shields have also been purchased to serve as an extra layer of protection for all teachers and staff members. Teachers will not be required to wear these shields, but may do so if they feel compelled to in certain situations.

Touchless thermometers are also being received from the state and 70 have already been received with an additional 100 still awaiting delivery. These will be used to get students into buildings as quickly as possible when completing temperature checks.

The school system is also working with a manufacturing company in High Point that provides a hand sanitizer that contains an 80 percent alcohol solution. A quart of this hand sanitizer will be provided for each classroom and there will also be sanitizing stations located throughout buildings.

Baker and his team are also working on the installation of touchless faucets in sinks to lessen the chance of students and staff having to interact with frequently touched surfaces.

For social distancing purposes, schools will be using red 2-inch floor tape to mark a distance of 6 feet.

Due to the airborne spread of COVID-19, paper hand towels have been ordered for students and staff to use to dry their hands.

Each school will have individual cleaning routines which have been outlined.

Bus seating charts will be used and each seat will be limited to one child. There will be exceptions for family units and siblings will be allowed to share seats on buses. ACS encourages parents who are able to provide transportation for their child to school to do so.

There will be restroom rotation schedules to allow for more regular cleaning of the facilities.

Classroom furniture is being rearranged to accommodate the most students in each classroom while still adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Cox said they are working to minimize the impact that following all the guidelines and the implementation of sanitary measures has on learning.

“There will be some time where we have to educate our kids about the masks and about the handwashing and about the different aspects of what we’re doing to keep them safe,” Cox said. “And I think it’s all for the good, they need to be a part of learning the why behind what we are doing so that they can get past it themselves so that we get down to instruction.”

She added that she thinks between the wonderful teachers and principals and the hard work they are doing it will minimize the long-term impact of the extra measures being taken.

According to Baker, each school has the flexibility to do what is in the best interest of their staff regarding cleaning measures. He said schools will plan schedules for each classroom to make bathroom visits and custodial staff cleaning the restrooms after each classroom.

At the end of each school day, it is suggested that teachers would wipe down their own classrooms.

Cox shared the family survey results which closed on July 16. Schools have been busy calling families who did not respond to the survey to get their input.

When asked the question about whether or not parents would want their child to return to school for face-to-face instruction under Plan B or virtually under plan C, 30.7 percent of parents preferred their student(s) to attend school completely virtually while 69.3 percent preferred to send their student(s) to school under Plan B.

Cox said of the responses they had, this represented almost 500 students and they had not collected all of their responses yet. According to Cox, the 30 percent in favor of all online instruction is staying consistent as they receive additional responses.

Prior to Cooper’s announcement that Plan A was no longer an option, 46.1 percent of families were in favor of their students returning under Plan A, 24.8 percent were in favor of Plan B and 29.1 percent were in favor of Plan C.

There has been a proposed staggered schedule for students upon returning to school under Plan B. Group A, which will be students with last names A-K and Group B will be students with last names L-Z.

Group A will attend school for face-to-face instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays while Group B will be learning at home remotely. Wednesdays will be used for deep cleaning in between groups of students coming into classrooms and also provide opportunities for teachers to plan and participate in professional development. Students will also have the opportunity to receive homework help or meet with their teachers virtually to have their needs met as well. Group B will attend school for face-to-face instruction on Thursdays and Fridays while Group A will be learning at home remotely.

According to Cox, they are doing their best to make accommodations with the interest of after-school care in mind or siblings who may have different last names to be able to attend school on the same days.

“That is a huge puzzle to put together and we may not be able to make everything work, but we are trying our hardest to make sure that we can accommodate it as much as we can under this,” Cox said.

Taylor shared some information about Plan C and state guidelines for remote learning.

Those who choose to participate in Ashe Online, per guidelines from the NC Department of Public Instruction, will be given grades. Taylor said there will be a variety of factors including not only attendance but also completion of assigned work.

NCAT is providing free virtual training for Canvas for teachers to utilize. Each school also has experts that will be the go-to person within each school to provide assistance with software.

“I have stressed to teachers that it is imperative that when they need help that they seek and they ask for it because we’re all at different levels,” Taylor said.

Parents who need some training on the software their children will be using can also receive help via small sessions for navigating LMS, which is the software students use to record their attendance as well as receive and turn in assignments.

ACS is asking for a semester of commitment from students when making the decision of whether or not they will participate in Plan B or Ashe Online.

CTE/Testing and Accountability Director Earl Pennington provided information as far as testing for students.

According to Pennington, EOG or EOC testing must be completed inside of school buildings, passports and NC check-ins may be done remotely but must be completed through a school device.

Additional information regarding scheduling of tests that must be completed within school buildings is still to be determined.

Beckworth asked about what action would be taken if a student or staff member were to test positive for COVID-19.

“We’re so small and we share buses, one exposure may impact multiple schools,” Cox said. “We’re hoping that we can operate face-to-face but we’ll have to make that decision when it happens because there are specific rules in place depending on exposure and if multiple schools are impacted that might change versus if it’s one classroom and it was somebody who did not ride the bus.”

In the event that a staff member must be quarantined by a local health department, they will qualify for days of leave. According to Putman, this would not affect their state-earned leave balance.

Cox said they would work with AppHealthCare with regard to any decisions if positive cases were to occur within the school system.

According to Cox, the screening checklist for symptoms will allow parents to check their children on a daily basis for symptoms. Schools will also work to be flexible with attendance and not penalize parents for being cautious and keeping their children at home.

“We don’t want parents to give them some Tylenol in the morning because they’re running a low grade fever and send them to school, we want them to keep them at home,” Cox said.

Parents are encouraged to keep their children at home if their child has developed a cough or any other symptoms. In the event that parents have to keep their child at home, they are also encouraged to communicate with the school system so they can provide remote instruction necessary to keep up with schoolwork.

As far as school nutrition, meals will be provided to students attending onsite and they will eat in classrooms to minimize exposure.

Director of Food Service Martha Turner said they will still be able to offer free and reduced lunch to students participating in the virtual option through curbside pickup. Turner said they will try to figure out a way for individual families who would like to participate in the meal program but can not participate in curbside pickup to make arrangements for deliveries.

According to Turner, they are trying to come up with innovative ways for students to still purchase supplemental sales at lunchtime. They are looking at potential ways to offer online ordering of meals so they know what to prepare and to provide students with choices.

Cox provided additional information about Ashe Online, which will provide a virtual experience with a hometown relationship.

ACS anticipates it to be a high quality and engaging experience for students. Expert Ashe County teachers will be delivering instruction and it will be a personalized experience. All students participating in Ashe Online will be able to engage with Ashe County teachers, who have an affinity for teaching in an online setting.

Ashe Online will follow NC standards and students will remain on-track with school curriculums.

If students choose this option, they will still have the opportunity to participate in sports.

There will be an application available for students who are interested in Ashe Online is available on the Ashe County Schools website at asheschools.org.

As far as the duration of the school day, Cox said they are looking at the same start and end times for schools.

The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be held on Monday, Aug. 3.

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