More students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will return to their classrooms on Tuesday even as most of the larger school districts across the state pause their reopening plans because of the rapid uptick in COVID-19 cases.
Four grades — 4, 5, 7, 8 — return to school buildings for the first time since mid-March on Tuesday, leaving high schoolers as the last group of students learning online. Their return is scheduled for the week of Jan. 25.
Returning students have been put in cohorts that alternate between going into school buildings and remote learning. Each cohort has up to 14 or so students in a classroom.
The return of four more grades comes amid reports of retirements and resignations among teachers, creating staffing issues in classrooms. With the number of cases surging in the weeks following the holidays, several school boards, including those in Guilford County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County have decided in the last two weeks to either delay the entry of more students or move to fulltime remote learning for several more weeks. Durham Public Schools will remain virtual for the rest of the year.
The local school board got an update on the reopening plan at a specially called meeting in early January and did not talk about reopening at its work session last week. The school board will meet again on Jan. 26.
Last week, students in grades 2, 3 and 6 returned to their schools, the first wave of students to return to their schools since early November when the school board paused its reopening plan.
According to the News & Observer of Raleigh, 52 of the state's 115 school districts have reverted to online learning because of the post-holiday surge.
Karen Smith, a longtime eighth-grade teacher at Wiley Middle School, said three of her colleagues at the school recently decided to retire out of concern for contracting COVID-19.
"Kids need to be in school, trust me, I know that with every ounce of my being. I know it to be a fact," Smith said. "But when we're at the height of the pandemic, we have to think about the greater good and with the community spread like it is, I don't know about the timing."
Smith said she would like to see the school district pause reopening until teachers can get the vaccine. The school district has been making preparations for the vaccine rollout but the Forsyth County Department of Public Health has not announced a starting date. Teachers age 50 and above were to be vaccinated after 75 year-olds but got pushed down the priority list when the state opened vaccines to all adults 65 and over.
Teachers have been vaccinated in a handful of states in the country and support is building for more teachers to get vaccinated. Last week, Anthony Fauci told CNN that vaccinating teachers is high on his priority list.
Smith said once teachers receive the vaccine, she anticipates some of their mental anxiety will dissipate.
"I would take it today if offered," she said.
One glimmer of good news is that some critical numbers are beginning to decline. Though medical experts caution that it's too early to say the worst is over, the number of hospitalizations in the state has fallen from a record-high of 3,990 on Thursday to 3,862 on Sunday and the state's positivity rate on Friday dropped to 10%, the lowest number since Dec. 23.
The school district has also installed a new air filtration system called bipolar ionization in 29 elementary schools and six middle and high schools as well as all of the COVID isolation rooms in each school. The system will be in all elementary schools by the end of January.
The units, about the size of a cable box, are plugged into the air systems in the schools. The units pull in air, trapping viruses and bacteria in a filter, before recirculating it in rooms, according to Darrell Walker, the superintendent of operations for the school district.
Money from the district's capital fund, Forsyth County and the federal government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is paying for the system.
Walker said the district may even try to install the boxes in school buses.
"I feel like we're out there on the cutting edge on this," Walker said.