When the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education approved a staggered re-entry plan for students on Oct. 1, the chances of transmitting COVID-19 in schools was in the low- to moderate-risk zone, according to guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established for schools.
There were occasional spikes in the number of daily cases, but for the most part, the county reported 20 to 30 cases a day, Joshua Swift, the county's director of public health told the school board at that meeting.
With the daily caseload now regularly surpassing 100 and the risk of transmission in schools at its highest levels, the school board will decide on Tuesday whether to reopen schools for students in grades 2-8 or pause the re-entry plan until case numbers begin to taper. If the students return, it would be under a hybrid model that mixes some in-person with remote learning, with students divided into cohorts.
Since Oct. 5, waves of students have returned to in-person learning, starting with career technical education students, pre-kindergarten, children in specialized programs and kindergartners. First-graders are scheduled to return on Monday.
All other students in the district have been learning remotely.
That could change on Tuesday if the school board decides to proceed with reopening. The meeting will be the first with Tricia McManus leading the district. She was sworn in as interim superintendent on Friday, taking over from Angela Hairston. Previously, McManus served as deputy superintendent.
Malishai Woodbury, the chairwoman of the school board, said the board needs to consider school and county data and hear from principals who have overseen the return of students.
"In my opinion, based on the very cautious mindset of WS/FCS, it is unlikely that upper elementary, middle and high school students will return before the start of the New Year," Woodbury said in a text.
Woodbury indicated she is open to the return of second-graders, referencing an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said primary schools are every bit as essential as grocery stores and doctors' offices.
In-person learning should be available to these students, Woodbury said, "in a safe learning environment that focuses on mitigation, wash, wait, wear."
Board member Elisabeth Motsinger has been steadfast in her opposition to reopening. The last several weeks have done nothing to change her mind.
"The numbers of infected of people in the county and the positivity rate are going up quite rapidly. We are about to enter what has been predicted to be the most dangerous time of this epidemic," Motsinger said.
Cold weather pushing people indoors and social gatherings centered around the holidays could lead to an even greater surge in cases, some experts have warned.
"And so bringing more children back into the classrooms at this time doesn't make much sense to me," she said.
After starting the school year with remote learning, some larger school districts in the state are beginning to phase in small numbers of students, primarily its youngest learners and students in specialized programs. On Thursday, first- and second-graders and some kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners returned to in-person learning in Guilford County Schools.
In her recommendation to the school board, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras argued that academic outcomes should be among the metrics her board should consider. An analysis of first quarter grades showed that 40% of students in Guilford County Schools failed at least one class compared to 29% last year, she said.
Most students in Guilford County will return in late January.
Here in Forsyth County, the return of students and staff has resulted in multiple positive cases, which led to a high number of teachers in quarantine. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, there are 17 confirmed cases involving students, with 13 of them among high school students. These students are not in school buildings but are practicing sports. That data was posted on the dashboard on Friday afternoon.
There are also 30 confirmed cases involving staff members at the schools, and 127 staff members in quarantine. Of the 127 in quarantine, 86 work in elementary schools.
The board's original plan called for local high school students to return as soon as Jan. 25.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.