In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on Monday there was a mixture of relief, fear and in, at least one classroom, multiplication.
“Nine times five. What is that?” Patrice Bethune asked her third-grade students at South Fork Elementary School. “Is it 25?” she teased.
“45!” They answered.
A teacher instructing her students certainly wasn’t unusual. But as schools reopened after a three-week holiday break, there were signs all over the place that this is no ordinary school year.
Bethune and 12 students in her classroom were masked, with their desks spaced apart. Six students participated from their homes, their faces appearing in squares on a big screen in front of the classroom.
Outside of Bethune’s classroom, some students practiced social distancing in a hallway; others returned from a quick trip outside, where they were allowed to take off their masks and enjoy a “Breath Break.”
“We’re communicating a routine,” said Raphael Green-Hughes, the principal at South Fork. “We want our scholars to have a great experience, to feel welcome and comfortable.”
The school district resumed its reopening plan on Monday, after a two-month pause, with students in grades 2, 3 and 6 back in their school buildings at a time when the county’s positivity rate has spiked to new heights.
On Monday, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported that the county had reached a record 14.5% positivity rate out of about 1,400 tests conducted Saturday. That eclipses the previous record of 14.3% from tests conducted Thursday and Friday.
Students from pre-kindergarten through first grade, as well as some children in specialized programs, have been back in school since at least early November, part of the staggered reopening plan that the school board approved last fall that mixes remote and in-person learning.
Students in grades 4, 5, 7 and 8 will return Jan. 19, and high school students are scheduled to return the week of Jan. 25. Also this week, some high school students returned to their schools for end-of-course exams.
Interim Superintendent Tricia McManus and members of the district’s leadership team visited several schools on Monday.
McManus said she would not have pushed for the reopening of schools if she didn’t think it could be done safely.
“We’re looking to see if all the safety measures are in place,” McManus said during a stop at South Fork. “I’m hyper-focused on the mitigation strategies, from masking to social distancing to hand sanitizing, and everything we’ve been getting ready to do.”
McManus said she is also interested in learning if there is anything more that the district can do to allay the fears of staff members. For instance, she said the district will look at the possibility of giving teachers plexiglass barriers that they could put on their desk while they are eating lunch with children in their classroom.
Dr. Chris Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has said that lunchtime can be a dangerous time for transmission because people are not masked.
The school district has increased the number of contact tracers and improved the air-filtration system in many schools since December.
McManus estimated that about 60% of students in grades 2, 3 and 6 returned to school buildings on Monday.
Lee Ann Snyder’s son returned to second grade on Monday. He attends the Downtown School where Snyder teaches eighth grade. Snyder said she feels anxious about her son starting in-person learning and the presence of sixth-graders in the middle school building.
“I’m worried about his health, but as far as developmentally, he needed to not be with himself all day,” said Snyder, whose husband stayed with their son during the day.
The Downtown School, she said, is doing a good job keeping people safe, but Snyder said the high rate of spread in the community is worrisome.
“I don’t know what is happening outside of these walls and what people are bringing into our building,” she said.
Another parent, Melissa Trombino, sent her second-grader to Clemmons Elementary School without hesitation.
“It was very emotional, but it was so exciting to see him go back,” Trombino said.
A nurse, Trombino called online learning a nightmare. Finding childcare for her second-grade and fifth-grade sons was a challenge. She also worried about isolation and the amount of learning her sons were retaining.
Her fifth-grade son will return next week. As long as students and staff follow safety measures, Trombino said she feels schools will be safe.
“I personally feel their mental health is something to be more concerned about than COVID,” she said.
Late last week, Shanata Shepard reversed her decision to send her son to kindergarten at Moore Elementary School. Shepard became emotional as she described what it was like to tell her son that she was keeping him at home.
She also has an eighth-grade son who will remain in virtual learning for the rest of the year. Shepard’s work schedule gives her the flexibility to work from home.
“We hoped to be back in the classroom but the numbers are still very disheartening,” Shepard said. “You’re afraid for your teacher’s life. You’re afraid for everybody.”
North Carolina schools have taken a variety of approaches to reopening. Durham Public Schools recently announced that students will remain online for the rest of the school year and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will remain remote until Jan. 19.
Last week, Ohl mentioned the reopening of schools in his weekly address.
“I think it’s totally appropriate as long as safety measures are done,” he said.