Poplin Elementary School in Indian Trail posted this image of an unnamed student on its Facebook page on the first day of school. The Union County school has since closed to in-person instruction due to confirmed cases of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Union County Schools.

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As the new coronavirus swept through North Carolina this summer, educators and superintendents prepared for what they knew would be anything but a typical school year.

A few days into it, officials and parents remain on edge, hopeful that the school year can continue for those that opted for in-person learning. A least one school closed due to positive cases among staff and at least one district that started out with in-person learning switched to online-only for now.

Children have been cooped up with their families for months while the pandemic upended their lives. Now they are thrilled to return to class, many reported.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus updates]

Brent Anderson, a spokesman for the Onslow County School District, said his wife is a retired teacher who has returned during the pandemic to teach a senior-level class.

“She said she can’t say enough about how excited the kids are to be back in school and to get some kind of normalcy after five months of the world being turned upside down,” Anderson said.

Some districts hired more school nurses to prepare for the return to class. Many are outfitting every student with devices so they can learn from home while another group of students attends classes — yet another effort to keep physical distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

All who spoke with Carolina Public Press for this article expressed concerns about a lack of substitute teachers — who are largely older and thus at risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19.

In-person learning is the exception

The largest schools have chosen not to bring children back to classes yet. More than 60% of students statewide attend school in districts that will not hold in-person classes for weeks under the state’s Plan C guidelines, if not several months.

 The three Ws are now a familiar refrain: Wear your face covering. Wait 6 feet apart. Wash your hands thoroughly and often.

Schools that allow in-person classes must follow the state’s strict guidelines — with more than 20 pages of requirements. Before entering the school, each person’s symptoms and temperature must be checked.

There must also be enough room in each classroom for students to remain 6 feet apart, and every student from kindergarten through 12th grade must wear a mask unless eating or drinking.

Even in districts that start the school year in person, many parents are keeping their children home anyway. As a result, some teachers are educating only a handful of children.

Confirmed cases

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Two staff members at Poplin Elementary School in Union County tested positive for COVID-19 last week, prompting the district to close the school temporarily through Sept. 7, according to news reports

Weddington Elementary School has also since closed, said Union County Public Schools spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte.

Representatives of districts in the Charlotte area — Union and Gaston county districts — say about 8,000 students each have opted for online schooling. Union County Public Schools is the largest district in the state to hold in-person classes.

Stalberte said Union County Public Schools made a concerted effort to hire more school nurses because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Last year the district had about one nurse for every two or three schools. There are 53 schools throughout the district.

“We have a nurse at each school,” Stalberte said. “They are closely monitoring and working with the staff.”

The district separates students into four cohorts. Each group attends school one day a week, with Friday reserved as a remote learning day, she said. Schedules of the schools’ janitorial staff have also changed so cleaning can take place before and after classes rather than at the end of the school day, she said.

Class sizes are also dramatically smaller, she said. “You may only have four kids in a classroom. Teachers are able to give more personalized attention to a student.”

Still, the younger students aren’t getting the same experience as in years past.

“I think everybody is really respecting the rules to reduce the spread,” Stalberte said. “Our superintendent has said we are asking for grace and patience right now as we work through all of this.”

Ten schools in Gaston County Schools have reported at least one case of COVID-19, according to news reports. There, students are split into two cohorts. One group attends classes Monday and Tuesday, while the other attends Thursday and Friday.

Teaching the children of Marines

Nearly one in five children in the Onslow County School District will learn remotely. Those electing to learn in person are split in two groups: one that goes to class Monday and Tuesday, and the other on Thursday and Friday, said Anderson, the district’s spokesman.

The Onslow County School District’s population includes children whose parents serve at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.

“The military looks at what we are doing as a mission readiness issue,” Anderson said. “If a Marine is taken down by COVID, that could impact the ability to do their job, and so they’ve been really supportive and helped us with best practices for what they have done on base.”

For example, instead of shutting down an entire facility when there’s a positive case, “they close the areas of the facility that need to be closed.”

Students are adapting to the guidelines easily. Throughout schools there are dots on the floor that show children what physical distancing is supposed to look like. 

“It’s been a good learning experience for the kids. A lot of the kids were using face coverings prior to coming back to school,” Anderson said.

Standing up the virtual school for more than 5,000 students in two months “has been a monumental challenge.” Fortunately, the district had already been providing laptops for each child in third grade and above.

“It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for families. We hear the frustration. We want everything to be normal. And it’s not going to be.”

Brent Anderson, spokesperson for Onslow County Schools District

“First and second graders will get laptops,” Anderson said. “And we’re using iPads for the kindergartners. I think everybody’s getting a lot of grace right now. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for families. We hear the frustration. We want everything to be normal. And it’s not going to be.”

Mixed plans in Buncombe

In a mixture of plans B and C, Buncombe County Schools are teaching children in person for the first week or two, depending on grade, and then moving to remote learning through late September and possibly beyond.

The first week of school is in the history books, and so far, at least in Buncombe County, it’s gone better than expected, Superintendent Tony Baldwin said.

From high school down to kindergarten, he said, students were consistently wearing masks “and looking out for each other.”

“Maybe we didn’t give our students as much credit as we should have regarding following the three Ws and practicing the safety guidelines,” Baldwin said.

Even in districts choosing to meet in person, a large fraction of parents has opted to keep their children home. That figure is 40% of Buncombe County Schools’ roughly 23,700 students — the highest percentage of the five largest districts with in-person instruction that Carolina Public Press examined for this article.

In a sixth case that was originally slated to open to students under Plan B, the Harnett County School District, its board voted to close its buildings to students through Sept. 28.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade attended the first week of school but are remaining home for five weeks afterward, Baldwin said. High school students will meet in class through Aug. 28 and will return to remote instruction through at least Sept. 28.

Baldwin said he’s worried about the younger students especially.

“There is just a concern that we can lose some of these kids,” Baldwin said. “If we lose them for a month, it could be a year before we fully recover. We just don’t know. Change is the key word in this COVID environment. We just don’t have any clue what the future holds for all of this, especially for this school year.”

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Baldwin said he visited many buildings throughout the week. Morale is a challenge, he said.

“People are so anxious. Our staff is anxious. Our parents are,” he said. But then he sees the children in class. “The kids are so excited.”

Because so many children are staying home, the class sizes were small. One kindergarten class had nine children in it, and some classes throughout the district had two or three children.

“These kindergarten teachers, I’ll tell you what. … They were making it all fun. The games led to keeping their masks on and putting little stickers on their masks,” he said.

Classes also had 6-foot foam swimming pool noodles to help children understand how far apart they needed to be from one another, he said.

Pandemic’s path picks course of schooling

In-person schooling can be fleeting, depending largely on how prevalent COVID-19 is in the community.

Both of the Union County elementary schools that recently closed due to COVID-19 cases “have transitioned to full virtual models until Sept. 7,” Stalberte said. “The school building is closed, and students and staff at these schools are working remotely until the school reopens on Sept. 8.”

Schools depend on everyone’s actions to stay in session. When asked where he saw the school year going from here on out, Baldwin, the Buncombe County superintendent, couldn’t say.

“It’s so darn cloudy. I don’t even predict anymore,” he said.

The direction of learning, whether in person or online, largely depends on society, Anderson said.

“It’s going to depend on what you do outside of school,” Anderson said. “Wherever you go on a weekend, whatever you do comes with you. It’s going to be a collaborative process for all of us to work together and have a healthy school.”

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Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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