After an extended meeting on Sept. 8, the Henderson County School Board voted to let students return to school on a limited schedule. Plan B would allow students in grades 3-12 to attend in-person classes on a staggered, two-day-a-week schedule. While continuing virtual learning is still an option for those who opt-out of in-person learning, the plan is for K-2 students to return to class Sept. 21, followed by grades 3-5 on Sept. 24 and grades 6-12 on Sept. 28. 

The School Board chose to split in-person students into two groups, with A-L surnames attending on Mondays and Thursdays, and students with M-Z surnames attending on Tuesdays and Fridays. 

At the time that the School Board made the decision for all virtual learning, Henderson County was averaging 27.7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the county; that number has moved to 6.8 cases per 100,000, spurring a new feeling that an in-person return is feasible. 

“We took data from the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and information from local health officials and doctors to form a basis for our decision.  The HGHI data showed that Henderson County had approximately 28 new cases of COVID as of July 13, daily. This was when we made the decision to start the year virtually. At our last board meeting, that number had gone down to around 6 new cases per day.  We felt comfortable, with guidance from local health officials, that was a strong indicator for returning to the face-to-face environment,” Blair Craven, current HCPS School Board Chairman, said. 

Dr. John Bryant, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services, and newly appointed HCPS Superintendent, noted that students can opt to switch back to virtual learning at any time, but once the decision is made to do so, the student must continue with virtual learning for the rest of the semester. 

Current Superintendent, Bo Caldwell, called the plan to return “fluid” and commented that it will have to adjust as the semester progresses, going on a case-by-case basis since some schools have the resources and ability to handle the situation, while others don’t. 

“Our staff will be following the guidance that we have received from our local Henderson County Health Department who, in turn, receives guidance from the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC. At this time, students and staff will practice the 3 Ws while at school- ‘Wear a Facial Covering, Wash Hands, and Wait at a Safe Distance,’” Luke Manuel, West Henderson High’s new principal, said. 

Elizabeth Jennings, the parent of a junior at West, says that her family feels that the precautions seem to be as well thought out as possible and they feel it is reasonable to try Plan B, although they also suspect it could be temporary. 

“Most students — including ours — learn much better face to face,” Jennings said. “We are fortunate to be relatively healthy and not in a high-risk category. We are happy to do what our community requests to keep the virus from spreading to vulnerable people. We always wear masks in public indoor spaces, for example. Since the school district has decided to open with precautions, our staying home would not have a huge effect on community spread. We feel the learning advantages outweigh our personal risks as healthy people.”

While some parents may be ready to let their children go back to school, many are fearful of both the health of their child and of their child’s teachers, as well as the progression of their child’s learning, if they choose to continue online instruction. Craven says that the superintendent and his leadership team have the ability to shut down a school or cohort if a COVID outbreak occurs, and the specific school, or the school system as a whole, would then continue with the virtual education. 

“Henderson County Public Schools will report suspected, presumptive, or positive cases of COVID-19 to Henderson County Department of Public Health and work with them for follow-up and contact tracing. The Department of Public Health will make the determination of the individuals that need to be quarantined. There are several factors that could constitute a school moving back to Plan C for a period of time. The governor could also mandate that all public schools move to Plan C,” Caldwell said. 

As the mother of a kindergartener and a fourth-grader, both at Mills River Elementary, Nicole Sweat is worried about the quality of her children’s education going forward. “If outbreaks happen in the school or we feel that proper precautions aren’t being taken, Plan B puts a lot of pressure on already overburdened teachers,” Sweat said. “While I have every confidence that the teachers and administration at Mills River Elementary will do their absolute best to help everyone, they have limited time and resources available to them. I am very nervous about how they will effectively teach in-person and online simultaneously. Outbreaks reported in the news definitely have made me nervous, but I do feel that elementary-aged children will fare better than high school and college-aged children have. I fully expect small outbreaks to happen at the schools but I feel there is much more control at the elementary school level and the outbreaks won’t be as bad, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”

Several students, parents, teachers and administrators have expressed their mixed feelings about the return to school. Most are eager to get back in the classroom and have face-to-face instruction, however, many are feeling overwhelmed about the plans to reopen. Concerns over hybrid instruction, as well as the health of everyone in the schools, have arisen. 

Guardians who have decided to let their students attend face-to-face classes have made plans and guidelines as to what will be the deciding factor in pulling them and having them finish the semester online. 

“If there is an outbreak or we develop health issues, we could switch to online.  It’s hard to say exactly what combination of factors would lead to that,” Jennings said. “While the weather is still warm and windows can be open and small gatherings can occur outdoors, the virus seems less threatening, but when winter comes and people are huddled indoors, I could see the situation changing.” 

While Jennings says that new waves of the virus would affect her family’s decision, Sweat says that other members of her family will help determine whether or not to put her children back in Plan C. “We often rely on the kids’ grandparents for help with childcare, especially when my husband is traveling for work. If they get to the point where they don’t feel safe to be with our children, I would pull them from school,” Sweat said. 

It is the ultimate objective to get students back to school as soon as it is safely possible for students, families and faculty, and Henderson County’s school leadership says that they are  working to ensure the best quality education that they can while keeping everyone healthy. 

“It is our goal to have students and staff return to school in a safe manner. With that comes some challenges, but also opportunities to have students back on West’s campus. As we get students back on campus, we plan to work through the challenges that might arise and be as proactive and inviting to our students as possible. The goal for our school is to have students, especially seniors, back on campus,” Manuel said.

By: Allison Caskey, Feature Editor

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