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'We're Ready,' interim superintendent says about the return of thousands of students and teachers to Winston-Salem/Forsyth classrooms
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'We're Ready,' interim superintendent says about the return of thousands of students and teachers to Winston-Salem/Forsyth classrooms

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The reopening for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will move forward as planned, with three more grades returning on Monday and the remaining grades returning by the end of January.

The school board met Tuesday for an update on the reopening plan that it approved in November. At that time, the number of COVID-19 cases as well as the positivity rate were far below current levels, which have set records both in the county and the state, a surge attributed to holiday gatherings.

Mandy Cohen, the director of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said on Wednesday that North Carolina is at a dangerous level, with a positivity rate a record 17.8%.

"There is an alarming amount of virus in our state," she said.

Still, Gov. Roy Cooper said at a press conference on Wednesday that the decision on school reopening should remain with local districts.

"We've not heard from superintendents that they want us to take away options from them," he said.

In addition to the return of students for regular classes, many high school students will be returning to their schools beginning Jan. 13 to take end-of-course exams. For some, it will mark the first time since March that they have been inside their schools. Students have the option of waiting until the summer to take the tests.

The school board took no action at Tuesday's meeting, paving the way for the reopening plan to resume after a pause of nearly two months.

"We're ready," Interim Superintendent Tricia McManus said at the end of her update. "Are we going to have no issues? No. Are we going to have no spread? No. Are we going to do everything in our power to make sure staff and students are safe and have what they need? Yes. We're going to be responsive."

The return of several thousand students and teachers comes at a time when teachers will soon be in the queue for vaccinations. Although a timeline has not been established, teachers 50 and over, along with other essential workers, are scheduled to be vaccinated after adults 75 and older, the group that is now scheduling its vaccinations. 

Val Young, the president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, said she hoped that the board would look at the growing number of cases in Forsyth County, which recorded 222 new cases on Wednesday, pushing its overall total to 21,913.

"I just felt like there should be an ease back in," Young said Wednesday. "I'm in shock a little bit. I know this is what they said they were going to do, but I'm so concerned about our numbers right now and adults going back in the building. Everybody did not do the right thing when they were on break."

Schools have reopened gradually, with pre-kindergarten through first grade returning in October and November. Along with those children, students in some career classes and special-needs classes have returned to school.

McManus advocated for a more aggressive approach to reopening schools after the holidays. On Monday, after a three-week holiday break, grades 2, 3 and 6 will return; on Jan. 19, grades 4,5, 7 and 8 will return, and high school students will return the week of Jan. 25.

School will be a mix of remote and in-person learning, with no students in the building on Wednesdays to allow for cleaning and planning for teachers. In some cases, classes will be divided into cohorts, alternating between in-person and remote learning to allow for smaller class sizes and social distancing.

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McManus, who took over the district's top job in mid-November, said she has spent the last several weeks talking to doctors, researchers and other superintendents.

"The thing I heard over and over is that when we follow mitigation strategies in our schools carefully that our schools are not super spreaders," she said.

According to the district's online dashboard, there had been 110 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and 253 cases among staff as of Jan. 1.

A survey sent to parents indicates that about 60% of students in grades 2-12 plan to return to in-person learning.

The district plans to increase the number of contact tracers from three full-time workers to 14 full- and part-time workers. It also plans to streamline its dashboard, eliminating the cumulative totals to focus more on active cases.

"You will see some improvement to the contact tracing processes," McManus said.

The school district is also in the process of installing an air filtration system known as bipolar ionization. It involves filtering out harmful substances such as airborne mold, bacteria and viruses. The filtration system has been installed in about 35 schools.

The biggest issues will revolve around staffing. With community spread so prevalent, the number of staff members in quarantine is certain to be significant. And many substitutes aren't interested in work this year because they may be at high risk, have children to take care of or are not interested in learning some of the technology involved with hybrid learning.

The average number of substitute requests jumped from 44 to 61 since Nov. 13, with an average of 110 requests in the last two weeks of December. 

McManus acknowledged the fear that many teachers have about returning.

Several members brought up those fears and talked about the need to hear from teachers and respond to their concerns.

"It's easy for us to sit back when we're not on the front lines," said Board Member Lida Calvert Hayes.

Though no vote was taken, it was clear that board members Elisabeth Motsinger and Andrea Bramer opposed reopening schools at this time.

Motsinger has pushed for a metric that would guide the school district on whether to reopen schools or keep them closed. McManus said she knows of no metric that would dictate reopening plans.

She said that, with Christmas now almost two weeks in the past, she is hopeful that COVID-19-related numbers will start to go down.

"The biggest thing we can do as a community and as individuals is not let our guard down when we are outside of our schools. That's when it's problematic," McManus said.

Motsinger said that several epidemiologists have cautioned that the country is about to hit the deadliest period of the pandemic. Waiting a few months until the vaccines become more widely available would make sense, she said.

"Ten years from now, students won't remember if they returned in January or March, but they will remember if one of their teachers died," she said.

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@lisaodonnellWSJ

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