Returning to In-Person Instruction: Update from Watauga County Schools

Posted By: Katie Greene Chamber News ,

Earlier this week, NC Governor Roy Cooper and State Education Leaders announced a call to school districts across the state to return to in-person instruction for all students (READ MORE HERE)

Research continues to show favorable mitigation measures and low transmission among students and faculty, but executive orders and DHHS guidelines have remained the same.  To provide some local context, Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent for Watauga County Schools, responds.

What are your thoughts on the announcement?

"We agree that providing in-person instruction options to our students is the ideal and we should work toward increasing the amount of time our students are in school. We have provided in person instruction for our Pre-K students, self contained children with disabilities, and our in school mental health programs since August. Other students have been attending in person on Plan B since October. Despite what the Governor and State Superintendent of Public Education said in the press conference, neither the Governor's executive orders nor the DHHS guidelines have changed. The orders continue to prevent Plan A (full time or full capacity attendance) at middle and high school and nothing from Tuesday seems to change that. Secretary Cohen again mentioned the importance of six feet of social distancing for middle and high school students.  We do have the option to move our kindergarten through fifth grade students to Plan A (minimal social distancing), and our board of education is discussing how to move from Plan B to Plan A for the younger children in the coming weeks. "

What does this announcement do for the current WCS operations?

"The announcement today does not seem to come with any more resources and no more flexibility or change in the DHHS guidance, so I am not sure what has changed. It seems more of a statement to encourage the 25 school systems who are in all remote instruction to move to where we have already been since October. Tuesday's press conference also seemed like it was also an attempt to push back against SB 37, which also seems disconnected from the DHHS guidelines. What we need right now is for the Governor, the Department of Public Instruction, DHHS, and now the legislature to get on the same page about the health and safety guidelines and what is expected."

How do staffing challenges affect your operations decisions?

"We've built a complex staffing and scheduling system based on the current guidelines that cannot be undone at the drop of a hat.  As we work toward moving K-5 from Plan B to Plan A, we will need to work through some significant hurdles. The two biggest of those are staffing and transportation. We have several staff members who are working remotely or who are working in person across multiple grades or subjects based on the current hybrid model. Also, we will not be able to get more of the students to school on buses and still follow the DHHS restrictions (one child per seat) on bus capacity limits. We also will need to increase our contact tracing and isolation protocols because we will have more students together with less than six feet of social distance. Again, that has not changed from DHHS. Most of all, we have to be able to have enough staff to keep classrooms and schools open. Our greatest challenge right now is keeping our staff healthy enough to have teachers in all our classes. We've been very close lately to just not having enough staff to keep the doors open. We cannot get that vaccine for our staff soon enough! 

Right now our focus is on a plan to get our K-5 students back to school at least four days a week."

Dr. Scott Elliott, Ed. D

Superintendent, Watauga County Schools