The logistics, effort and money it will take to safely reopen schools in Forsyth County left some members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education temporarily speechless at a committee meeting Thursday.
The special committee has been meeting weekly for the last several weeks to prepare for the coming school year. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce Wednesday whether schools will be allowed to open with minimal or moderate social distancing, or if remote learning will be required. Each of the state’s school systems is coming up with plans on how it will reopen schools based on guidelines from the state.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is still in the discussion phase and has not decided what plan it will put forward. The school board is likely to vote on a plan in early July.
After hearing a report about the detailed health screening and protocols that will be implemented on buses and in schools, there was a significant pause when presenter Michael Pesce, the school system’s director of social work, asked for questions.
“It’s overwhelming,” said school board member Marilyn Parker, the special committee’s chairwoman.
Board member Elisabeth Motsinger added: “I’m glad you shared it, but it’s also shocking in terms of the reality that faces our district ... and it’s hard news.”
The meeting focused on where students will go to school, how they will get there, and how they will be screened to keep students and staff members healthy and schools open.
On the scheduling front, two scenarios were presented for schools if they reopen with moderate social-distancing measures (known by the state as Plan B). Under both scenarios, students from pre-K through third grade would go to their assigned school in person every day. Students in grades 4-12 would be divided into two cohorts, with each cohort going to their assigned school one week and learning remotely the next week.
Under Plan B, schools must operate at 50% capacity to maintain proper social distancing. The second scenario would involve students in fourth and fifth grades going to their assigned middle school; sixth- through eighth-graders going to their assigned high school; and high school students learning remotely.
To be able to keep buildings at 50% capacity, the school system would need to utilize all of its buildings, Superintendent Angela Hairston said.
Hairston said the idea to have students come to a school building every other week instead of every other day, is meant to help parents with child care.
“We don’t have great options,” Motsinger said. “We have less-bad options.”
The school system wants to partner with recreation centers, churches and other community organizations that could offer work spaces and, perhaps tutors, for students learning remotely. Though high school students don’t need a babysitter while they learn remotely at home, Hairston said some parents would appreciate having their children learn in a more structured environment with some supervision.
Transportation will also be affected. Based on guidelines from the state, each bus must operate at 25% capacity, which means about 12 students per bus. As a result, it will take a minimum of five hours for all bus riders to get to their school, according to Darrell Walker, the assistant superintendent of operations.
Those extra routes will cost at least $15 million, depending on which scheduling scenario is chosen. Because of the reduced bus capacity, the school system is likely to scrap its school-choice program for children who can’t provide their own transportation.
Another complex and costly change is on the health and wellness front. Bus riders will be required to bring proof each day that they don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms and have not been around anyone with the disease. That proof, in the form of a parent-signed piece of paper, will be presented to the bus driver.
Some problems with that? It will create delays, and some students may forget their forms. In some cases, bus drivers can’t leave those young riders waiting at the stop unattended.
Once at the school, car riders and bus riders will need to be screened by staff members, coming in the building through designated entrances. Students must also use hand sanitizers inside the building.
Though not required, the state is recommending COVID-19 coordinators in each school, which will cost an estimated $5.1 million.
A few committee members talked about the need for the community to get involved.
For instance, the school system is talking with the Winston-Salem Transit Authority about providing transportation for some students to alleviate the strain on the bus system.
Hairston said the school system could receive more state money, and there is an effort underway to secure more federal money.