UPDATE (November 20): In a 4-3 vote, Durham’s board of education approved a revised version of this proposal for in-person learning. You can find details on the Durham Public Schools website.

Durham Public Schools officials announced on Monday that plans are underway for a select group of students to return to their classrooms to resume in-person learning. The plan would start in January and continue for the remainder of the school year.

On Thursday night, school officials will present “Plan B,” a set of state-mandated guidelines allowing elementary school students to return to their classrooms at a limited capacity, to the Durham County Board of Education for approval.

Until now, the board has been reluctant to resume in-person classes, taking a more cautious approach than the majority of North Carolina counties. In Wake County, for example, elementary schools returned to daily in-person classes on Monday.

Durham school officials say they’re ready to return too, but in a limited capacity.

“The plan is really simple,” schools superintendent Pascal Mubenga said during a late morning press conference in front of the school-system office in downtown Durham. “We really want to bring our younger ones—the babies—from Pre-K all the way to [grade] five back on campus on a rotational basis.”

State health officials report that children under the age of 10 may be less likely than older teens and adults to spread COVID-19 to others.

However, state officials also point to newer findings that suggest younger children may be able to spread the virus more than originally thought. They also note that children may be more likely to get COVID-19 from an adult than to spread an infection to an adult, and that the spread of the virus is more likely to occur within a household than at school.

“We’re starting cautiously, with younger students who appear to be at lower risk,” Durham Schools spokesperson William “Chip” Sudderth III told the INDY.

County health officials have also reported that elementary and secondary schools are among the top 10 places in Durham to contract the virus.

The proposed plan recommends that elementary-age children—preschool through fifth grade—attend “face-to-face learning” two days a week. The students would be placed in “cohorts,” with one group attending Mondays and Tuesdays, and a second group on Thursdays and Fridays.

Moreover, the plan proposes that students who are visually impaired or hard of hearing will attend school four days a week for a limited period with the hopes of eventually having a full day of learning.

School officials also announced the pending launch of the new “Ignite Online Academy” for students who wish to remain in remote learning.

Officials are developing a COVID-19 dashboard to share information with the community should there be a positive case or potential exposure within a school or facility, officials said in a press statement.

Julius Monk, the school system’s chief operations officer, said that even though the state guidelines allow schools to operate under Plan A—meaning full capacity—Durham Public Schools choose Plan B to help with social distancing in the classrooms.

Monk said school officials have also done a good job purchasing personal protective equipment that has gone down in price since March, and will create signage to help the children move safely and maintain social distancing.

In addition to higher grade air filters to improve the circulation of outside air into classrooms, Monk said the school system will hire additional custodial staff and bus drivers.

Students would receive temperature checks in the mornings before boarding their school buses and a second check before entering the school building, Sudderth said. He added that it’s important that parents arrive at the bus stops with their children. If a child has a high temperature, the parent can take them home.

Mubenga said he has been talking with teachers on a regular basis. Some are looking forward to resuming in-person teaching, while others are uncomfortable, he admitted. Part of his task is to reassure them that safety protocols are in place.

“We still have work to do with them,” he said. “We want to implement the plan on January 21, and so we have to get the staff as comfortable as they can be.”

Michelle Burton, a veteran elementary school librarian and president of the Durham Association of Educators, told the INDY that the biggest concern she’s hearing from her fellow educators is about safety protocols.

The teachers she’s spoken with want to know how well they’ll be protected upon entering the building, especially with infection rates getting higher, Burton said.

The teachers are worried—not only for their own safety and health, but for their family members who may be at higher risk for the virus because of their age or pre-existing conditions.

“The anxiety level is very, very high,” Burton said on Tuesday. 

In the press conference the day prior, Mubenga argued that after eight months, it’s time to reopen the schools, even if it’s in a limited capacity.

“We have been remote, but we cannot remain in remote forever,” Mubenga said. “At some point we are going to have to make the transition back on campus.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on November 17 to include additional context from Michelle Burton.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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