Durham schools to remain with online remote classes through 2021

Durham Public Schools students will remain with remote instruction for the rest of the school year, the school board voted Thursday night, reversing tentative plans it made just a few months ago.

Board members voted unanimously to remain in Plan C, where the district has been since the school year began.

“You can kind of see some of the solemnness on our faces,” Chairwoman Bettina Umstead said after the vote, addressing people who might be watching the livestream of the meeting.

“This is a tough decision; I feel like we’re making the right decision,” she said. “But we also feel the pain of where we are right now and the difficult pieces of this decision.”

In a statement, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the decision “will allow our students to stay with their current teachers for the duration of the school year.”

“We will be able to keep our students and staff safe while ensuring continuity of learning. We will keep improving online learning, and we will come back to the board next month with proposals to provide safe, voluntary opportunities for English language learners and students in self-contained classrooms.”

Despite the struggles families and students are facing with remote learning, many still have concerns and anxiety about returning to in-person instruction.

Julie Spencer, assistant superintendent for Research & Accountability, said elementary school families were asked for their preference for their children in December: in-person learning or remote. Spencer provided data based on 92{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of families responding to the survey.

She said 47.8{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the respondents prefer virtual learning, while 44.4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} prefer in-person.

Covid-19 cases impact reopening

In November, the school board voted to allow families to enroll children in kindergarten to fifth grade for part-time in-person instruction in the spring, but only if the county’s positive case rate is below 4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} for two weeks.

Since then, the rate, and cases have continued to climb in North Carolina and around the country. Hospitals are reaching capacity, and health officials say a holiday “bump” of cases has yet to arrive.

“My thought was to look at the trend of where we were going, but we’re not going down, and I don’t see a way for us to move forward with, you know, opening up on the 23rd,” said board member Mike Lee, who had voted for the previous plan in November.

Currently, the positivity rate is at 9.5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}. There have been 16,057 coronavirus cases and 145 deaths in Durham County since the pandemic began in March, the state Department of Heath and Human Services reported on its website Friday.

Under the plan approved in the fall, students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade would attend in-person instruction two days a week starting in mid-January through the end of the school year. Middle school and high school students stay with remote instruction through the rest of the year.

At that time, the percentage of positive tests was 6.3{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}. And a few weeks later, on Dec. 1, there were 11,476 cases and 120 deaths, according to the Durham County Department of Public Health.

Mubenga said the district will work on a robust re-opening plan later in the spring for when students eventually return in the fall.

“We understand that there is a significant learning gap,” he said. “But the more time we’re going have to be able to prepare for it, I think we’re going to be able to come up with a better plan so that we can start addressing those needs.”

Governor gave districts a choice

In July, Gov. Roy Cooper said the state’s schools could open under Plan B, a partial re-opening with social distancing, or Plan C, with online-only instruction. Under Plan B, the schools could re-open at 50{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} capacity with buses at 33{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} capacity.

DPS opted to keep all students home for online classes under Plan C.

In September, Cooper said elementary schools could reopen for daily in-person instruction starting Oct. 5, if local districts chose to. Durham schools focused its plan on elementary schools to help early learners develop fundamental skills in literacy and math, said Nakia Hardy, deputy superintendent, in the fall.

But as the coronavirus pandemic has continued setting new records for daily cases and hospitalizations, many school districts are changing their spring semester plans.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools won’t bring students back this month as planned, and instead expects to re-open to Plan B in March, The News & Observer reported.

Wake County is allowing most students back into classrooms, but the district may change course on part of its plan next week, The N&O reported.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Features Editor Jessica Banov oversees coverage of entertainment, the arts, food and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. She is the Mid-Day Breaking News Editor for the Carolinas region.

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