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School board will consider postponing start of school for some students
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School board will consider postponing start of school for some students

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The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education will vote on Thursday whether to delay by two weeks the return of more students to school buildings.

Hundreds of pre-kindergarten and students in exceptional children programs are set to return on Monday, among the first wave of students to return to in-person learning as part of the hybrid learning plan that the school board approved on Oct. 1.

Some Career Technical Education students returned to their schools earlier this month.

On Tuesday, a special committee of the school board voted unanimously to have the full board vote on whether students should return next week. Any change to the re-entry plan requires the vote of the full board. The board wasn't expected to meet until next week, but Superintendent Angela Hairston asked the board to have a specially called meeting on Thursday to give parents as much time as possible to prepare should the board vote to postpone school.

The school board is looking at a set of core indicators established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guide it. Those indicators are the rate of new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days and the percentage of positive cases over 14 days in Forsyth County. Based on those numbers, the CDC puts schools in different risk categories and lists several steps schools can take to mitigate risks.

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health updated the metrics on Tuesday. The incidence rate of 160 new cases puts the district in the "higher risk of transmission in schools" zone and the positivity rate of 6.8% puts the district in the moderate risk zone.

The core indicators that the CDC established reflect what is going on the community, Hairston said.

"We can see if people don't change behaviors, the numbers won't change," she said.

The special committee that voted on Tuesday is made up of five school board members: Marilyn Parker, Deanna Kaplan, Andrea Bramer, Dana Caudill Jones and Elisabeth Motsinger. Jones was not present.

The school board meeting on Thursday is expected to start at 5 p.m. Though public comments are generally not allowed at specially called meetings, Hairston recommended that they be allowed for this meeting.

The surge in COVID-19 numbers, a statewide trend, caused Guilford County Schools to postpone a return to in-person learning for some of its younger students on Monday.

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The committee's decision to have the full board vote on postponing school re-entry came after about two hours of presentations on what schools will look like under the hybrid model. 

As the committee met virtually, about 100 teachers, bus drivers, teacher’s assistants, custodians and other employees of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth Schools demonstrated in front of the Education Building on Bethania Station Road, calling for school officials to safely reopen the district’s 81 schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The district’s employees attended the protest that lasted nearly two hours after they completed their work at the many schools, said Val Young, the president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators.

The demonstrators stood along Bethania Station Road to display signs that said, “Safe Return for Students and Teachers,” “Masks Are Disposable, Teachers Are Not,” “All Our Children Deserve a Clear Threshold for Learning.”

The protesters chanted, “Only when it’s safe,” and “What do we want? Safe schools. When do we want them? Now.”

Yvonne Williams of Winston-Salem, the president of the WS/FCS Retired School Personnel, said that many school employees want to remain with remote learning for students and teachers.

These employees only want to return to the schools “when it's safe for the students, teachers and the staff,” Williams said.

The school board must select the safest option for reopening all the schools, but that should not include Plan A, which would allow a full-reopening with minimal safety protocols, Williams said.

Fran Bussey of Winston-Salem, a math teacher at Walkertown Middle School, said she is concerned about local cases of COVID-19 increasing amid the flu season.

Bussey said she is worried that the school system does not have adequate numbers of substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers who may miss time in the classrooms because of the virus or other reasons.

The school board should consider returning to system-wide remote learning, Bussey said.

Remote learning is the right approach until it is safe for students and educators to return to classrooms, said Tripp Jeffers, a former FCAE president and a history and philosophy teacher at Parkland High School.

“We are demonstrating for returning to school only when it’s safe,” Jeffers said. “If their parents, grandparents and teachers are dying from COVID, then they (students) are left behind permanently. This is no joke.”

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