GREENSBORO — Middle and high school students will not return to in-person classes in Guilford County Schools this month as planned.
The Guilford County Board of Education voted 5-4 Tuesday night to hold off on sending any additional students back to in-person classes for at least three weeks. They directed staff to report back on the possibility of using rapid tests for COVID-19 at schools and on the county's progress on community vaccination.
Vice Chairwoman Winston McGregor made the motion.
"I really want to propose that we put this return of middle and high school students on hold until we see a clear plan for how vaccines and testing will roll out," she said.
Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr said the district is investigating using rapid COVID-19 testing in the schools, including testing some students who may not be showing symptoms. She was not ready to present a plan at Tuesday's meeting.
Once their school reentry begins, middle and high school students who choose to go back to school are expected to attend in-person instruction two days a week and remote instruction three days a week. For now, those students will be continuing with remote instruction.
The district has prioritized the return of elementary school students, given evidence that they are less likely to get sick from and transmit COVID-19.
District officials also are concerned about students getting basic educational building blocks, such as learning to read, as well as the burden on families who must find child care for younger children.
McGregor made her motion late in the meeting, after multiple presentations related to COVID-19 and school reopening.
Two doctors associated with Duke University — school reentry advisers to the school district and others in North Carolina — spoke with board members. They are part of the ABC Science Collaborative, a program that pairs scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help them understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19, according to information from the district.
Those advisers painted a generally positive picture for school reentry. They shared data that they said showed that, with prevention measures in place, in-school transmission is rare. When spread occurs, it is more likely to occur between staff rather than from students to staff, the doctors said.
Even after the guidance provided by the Duke doctors, school board members shared many concerns with reopening more in-person classes, especially concerns related to recent reports that county hospitals are nearing capacity due to the pandemic. Cone Health warned earlier this month that if COVID-19 hospitalization trends continue, all 924 staffed beds in its hospital system could be filled by Jan. 21.
"Is this worth the risk to the older students, to the staff that is there?" asked board member Deborah Napper. "Where will they go when they get sick?"
Board member Pat Tillman made a substitute motion that the district go ahead with the middle school return while staff prepares the requested reports, but wait on beginning the high school return until Feb. 2.
His motion won the support of fellow board members Anita Sharpe and Khem Irby, but failed 6-3.
McGregor's motion passed with votes from Napper, Chairwoman Deena Hayes-Greene and board members T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and Bettye Jenkins.
Board member Linda Welborn voted against both motions. She expressed interest in getting high school seniors back to in-person classes soon to help them prepare for graduation, but thought Tillman's motion still left the district bringing back too many additional grades in too short a time period, given the situation faced by hospitals.
"I'm struggling with moving too fast, too far, and too much," she said.
The move Tuesday to delay reentry came from the board rather from a recommendation from the school administration, unlike some previous delays. The district has had one COVID-19 cluster, defined as five or more linked cases, at one school, Carr said. Any other instances of transmission in schools have been fewer than five linked cases.
The district is finding that students are adjusting "quite well" to the requirement that they wear masks, Carr said, despite initial concerns that it might be difficult to get the students to do so.
More than 20,000 students in Guilford County Schools have returned to in-person classes this school year, school administrators said Tuesday night.
That includes many pre-K through fifth grade students, as well as some older students with various special needs. Those students will continue with their in-person classes and are not covered by the vote.
Carr shared that 73.5% of K-5 students are currently learning in-person and that 70.2% of middle school students have had their families indicate a preference for them to return to school. High schools are still gathering data from families.
Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras was absent from Tuesday's meeting to deal with an emergency, Carr said.
"I think we also should keep our superintendent in prayer, and her family," Bellamy-Small said in her comments at the end of the meeting. "Because, you know, she has a family too. So we need to be sensitive to the fact that all of us are going to perhaps have to step away at some point in time because of our own personal needs or needs of our families."
Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.