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GCS Considers Option to Increase In-Person Learning Time

March 11, 2021. – With social distancing requirements for secondary schools easing, Guilford County Schools (GCS) is considering whether to add more days of in-person learning for more middle and high school students.

State officials announced yesterday they had reached a bi-partisan agreement to return more students to school. For the first time, districts can open grades 6-12 for all students under Plan A, which requires minimal social distancing.

Previously, secondary schools were restricted to the state’s Plan B, which requires six feet of social distancing at all times and limits building occupancy to 50% or less.

These measures meant that most GCS middle and high school students could not return to school fulltime in-person due to lack of space. Instead, most middle and high school students are attending school on a hybrid schedule that includes two days of in-person learning and three days of online learning.

Once Governor Cooper signs the new legislation into law, school districts will have 21 days to make any required shifts to their reopening plans. GCS is currently serving more than 47,866 students in-person.

While GCS’ current reopening plan already complies with the new state legislation and updated public health guidelines, district administrators are reviewing whether adding more days of in-person instruction is feasible between now and the end of the school year.

“We want our children back in school and have been advocating for their return for some time,” said GCS Superintendent Sharon Contreras. More than 20,000 district students in grades PreK-12 were learning in-person prior to winter break. GCS began phasing in the remaining middle and high school students three weeks ago.

“Now that middle and high school students can go to school under ‘Plan A,” which requires minimal social distancing in classrooms and on school buses, we need determine if we can bring more students back for the remainder of the school year while keeping everyone healthy and safe,” said Contreras.

Staffing and the logistical challenges of reconfiguring student and teacher schedules, transportation routes and restocking schools with furniture and materials also must be factored in, according to Contreras.

While vaccinations should help cut down on staff illness, isolation periods and quarantines due to the coronavirus, many employees are still waiting for their second dose of vaccine. The vaccinations reach full strength 14 days after the second dose.

“The most significant barrier we face is that staffing issues could necessitate changes to building, student and teacher schedules,” said Contreras. “The potential disruptions could undermine the very point of the bill, which is to provide children with more high-quality instruction.”

School bus routes may have to be reconfigured and the statewide bus driver shortage has worsened during the pandemic. In addition, GCS removed bookshelves, desks and materials from classrooms and schools last summer to accommodate social distancing requirements.

The move made room for more students while limiting items in classrooms that require daily cleaning and disinfecting. Restoring everything to its rightful place will take time, even with additional help.

With less than three months of the school year left and an intensive month of mandated state testing looming in May, GCS may choose to keep middle and high school students in Plan B this spring.

District leaders also are considering whether they can expand in-person options for students with disabilities who are currently attending school in-person just two days per week, or for English language learners, another student group that has struggled to access remote learning during the pandemic.

“We’re pleased that the legislation mirrors what we’re already doing in GCS as it affirms the wisdom of our re-entry plan, which has sought to return students gradually, starting with our youngest and most vulnerable students,” said Contreras. “Our re-entry plan and our success in bringing students back to school in a manner that keeps everyone healthy and safe have been serving as state and national models throughout the pandemic.”

The district started the gradual return to in-person learning at the end of September, starting with PreK students, followed by all K-5 students. Throughout the planning process last spring and during the summer, Contreras insisted that the district’s reopening plan include a five-day-per-week, in-person learning option for the district’s youngest learners.

“Learning to read through remote instruction is incredibly difficult, especially since most students at that age lack the foundational academic skills for reading,” she said. “While the timing of re-entry has changed as the data and science have changed, returning as many students as possible to in-person learning has been our plan from the start.”

GCS was also one of the first large school districts in North Carolina to reopen its self-contained, adaptive curriculum classrooms and public separate school classrooms.

Students with disabilities in grades 6-12 who are served in self-contained classrooms and public separate schools have had the option of attending in-person four or five-days-per-week since November, depending on their grade level or school setting.

“Our most vulnerable students have had the most challenges in terms of accessing learning remotely, so it was important to us to bring them back as soon as we felt it was healthy and safe to do so,” said Contreras.

Seniors who need to complete clinical practicums in order to graduate with a Certified Nurse Assistant credential also have had the option of learning in-person. “Our strategic plan is centered on equity and improving learning and life outcomes, so we apply that lens to every decision we make,” Contreras said.

Parent/family choice regarding in-person or remote learning – another feature of the newly adopted legislation – has also been part of GCS’ phased-in reopening plan since August. As new grade levels return to in-person learning, the district has continued to offer parents remote learning options. Two new, virtual academies debuted prior to the start of school this fall.

“Parents and families in our community value having options, so we knew this would be an important component of our reopening plan,” said Contreras. “While we’re eager to have all students back with us in school, we recognize that some parents may choose to keep their children learning remotely for health reasons or because the flexibility simply works well for their children and family.”

GCS was also one of the first districts outside of the Research Triangle area to join the ABC Science Collaborative, which is referenced in the legislation as a required partner for research regarding in-person learning.

One of the collaborative’s lead clinical practitioners and researchers – Kanecia Zimmerman, MD – is a graduate of High Point Central High School. Zimmerman and her colleagues have presented multiple times to the school board, district leaders and various employee groups.

GCS administrators participate in regular conference calls with the collaborative, which is associated with Duke University Medical School.

“We’re proud that one of our own is leading this national and global effort,” said Contreras. “In many ways, healthcare professionals and educators have been leading the nation through the pandemic and we’re proud to be a part of this effort.”