Durham Students Won’t Return to the Classroom This School Year

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education in November approved a plan to resume in-person learning for the school system’s elementary students.

But then the holidays took off, and so did the county’s COVID19 cases.

Last week, school officials noted the county’s rising coronavirus rates and announced that schools will continue online-only learning for the remainder of the academic year.

“It’s a tough decision, but it’s the right decision,” school board Chair Bettina Umstead said about the unanimous 7-0 vote during a special meeting on January 7. School health officials who spoke at the meeting reported that the county has seen a sharp rise in new, lab-confirmed coronavirus cases each day between December 1 and January 6.

“Our board’s decision will allow our students to stay with their current teachers for the duration of the school year, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga stated in a press release after the special meeting. “We will be able to keep our students and staff safe while ensuring continuity of learning, and we will come back next month with proposals to provide safe, voluntary opportunities for English-language learners and students in self-contained classrooms.”

Wake County’s public schools had already partially restarted in-person learning at the tail end of 2020. The Wake County School Board later switched back to virtual learning temporarily because of rising COVID cases, but some students are scheduled to return to the classroom on January 20. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools were supposed to restart in-person learning this month, but those plans are on hold, likely until March or later. Orange County is currently planning to send students back to schools on January 25 using a staggered entry schedule.

In Durham, spiking COVID cases led school officials to reevaluate. Durham County went from 11,000 cases to 15,000 cases “in roughly a month,” said Susan Thompson, a nurse with the county’s public health department. Thompson said the number of new cases at the beginning of December was about 150 a day. That number—largely attributable to winter holiday gatherings and travel—has increased significantly to 250 a day.

Two months before, the school board narrowly approved the reopening of elementary schools in a limited capacity.

Their conflicted 4-3 vote on November 19 mirrored the concerns and uncertainties voiced by parents and teachers. Prior to the November meeting, residents submitted 447 comments on school officials’ recommendation to allow pre-kindergartners and elementary students to return to their classrooms two days a week. Of the hundreds of public comments the board received, opponents of reopening outnumbered supporters about 5 to 1.

Board member Natalie Beyer echoed parents’ and teachers’ concerns before the November vote. She noted that returning children to school would pose a daunting challenge at what was then a county infection rate of six percent “and rising.” She said a three percent rate was preferable.

Durham County’s current infection rate is 9.5 percent, Thompson told the board members—more than triple Beyer’s target rate.

The school system first shut down in March during the height of the pandemic and resumed classes this fall with remote-only learning that’s known as Plan C.

As previously reported in the INDY, school officials wanted to begin Plan B, a set of state-mandated guidelines allowing elementary school students to return to their classrooms at a limited capacity. 

“It would be irresponsible on my behalf to remain in Plan C for the remainder of the school year,” Mubenga said at the onset of the virtual November meeting.

During last week’s special meeting, Mubenga said his staff would “spend its energy fine-tuning Plan C,” and promised parents “a robust plan” with summer classes to address any learning gaps in their children’s instruction. 

Board Vice Chair Mike Lee said reopening at a later date would pose logistical issues and potentially emotional problems for students who would have spent three quarters of their school year in online learning. He noted that with vaccinations for school staff set to start next month, the faculty would have the summer interval before resuming at a regular pace in the fall.

Like Thompson, Lee thinks the winter holiday period contributed to the county’s infection rates, particularly with travel from the Bull City to Atlanta, because the city was “open” for “partying.”

“And that’s exactly what they were doing,” he added.

Board member Alexandra Valladares said she’s heard from a significant number of parents who are concerned about children’s needs are being met, “especially vulnerable students.” She stressed the importance of learning centers remaining open as a continuing means to bolster support for students with special needs.

According to the Durham Public Schools website, the centers “provide a safe space to complete online learning, meals and snacks, and social-emotional activities.” Students are assigned to pods “with daily wellness screenings, distribution and required use of face masks, and planned circulation and seating of six feet social distancing.”

The learning centers will remain open.

Like Valladares, Beyer said she’s heard the frustrations of parents who want to return to the classroom, and who are struggling, “in all kinds of different ways.”

However, Beyer also voiced support for students to remain at home. She emphasized making remote learning a more meaningful experience by focusing on “emotional learning.” She suggested studying Durham’s history and equity-based topics.

“These are strange, strange times,” she added.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to [email protected].

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