Last night, the Durham school board voted to send students back to school in person in March and April but some county leaders aren’t happy about it.  

In an emergency meeting, the board voted 5-2 to implement school administrators’ plan to bring students back for in-person learning beginning next month, a move, Durham Public Schools said in a press release, that comes “in light of Senate Bill 37,” the bill that would mandate all schools in the state reopen for in-person learning.

“We have heard from families who want to remain in remote learning and others who want to return to classrooms,” said Dr. Pascal Mubenga, DPS superintendent.  “We are now able to provide both of those options.”

Mubenga touted a partnership between the Durham County Health Department and Duke Health to vaccinate teachers and school employees as soon as possible and assured that the school system would provide personal protective equipment, sanitation and maintenance support, and the school-by-school plans to offer teaching and learning safely.

Elementary school students will return to school March 15 for a four-day week. Middle and high school students are scheduled to return April 8 in a three-cohort model that will rotate between remote and in-person instruction on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Each cohort will attend class two consecutive days a week every other week with remote instruction on the other days. And Wednesdays for all students will serve as an asynchronous “wellness day” where students learn from home. 

School board chair Bettina Umstead emphasized that any students who already have individualized plans to learn remotely should stay in remote learning in order to support school staff and ensure proper social distancing. 

Durham’s school district has been in remote learning since March of last year.  

The decision has already rankled some other Durham leaders. Following the vote, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam criticized the school board for making the decision “with little notice” given to the commissioners and county residents, and for not providing an opportunity for public comments. 

“This lack of transparency is problematic,” Allam wrote in a press release sent out immediately following the vote. “The Board stated the action was in response to Senate Bill 37. I share their desire to bring pupils back to the classroom, but this action was premature. This decision could result in the endangerment of citizens’ general health and wellbeing.”

Allam emphasized that SB 37 is not yet law and that Governor Cooper has said he opposes the bill as it doesn’t mandate compliance with NC DHHS guidelines.

“I strongly concur with the Governor’s judgment,” Allam said. “I believe this decision does not prioritize the health of students, families, educators, and school staff.”

Allam concluded by acknowledging that, while the number of cases of COVID-19 are down, that’s due to strict guidelines minimizing in-person interaction. She wrote that rescinding these guidelines “will almost certainly lead to another increase in COVID-19 cases,” especially if vaccinating teachers and school personnel isn’t prioritized. 

Chapel-Hill Carrboro students will return to class in mid-April under the Plan B hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning, with one cohort of students attending classes in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and another cohort attending Thursdays and Fridays. Parents also have the option to keep their students in remote learning. 

Wake schools re-opened for in-person instruction for some students this week, with pre-K through third graders and all special education students returning for in-person classes daily, and fourth through twelfth graders attending on rotation. Students wear masks, undergo daily health screenings, eat lunches in silence, and aren’t allowed to make physical contact with one another. 

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