Despite COVID-19 cases spiking and new protective measures ordered by Governor Roy Cooper, the Durham school board narrowly approved the reopening of elementary schools in a limited capacity—known as Plan B—in a recent vote.

Their conflicted 4-3 vote mirrored the concerns and uncertainties voiced by parents and teachers. Prior to the November 19 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.

Olga Hawn, the mother of a kindergartener and third-grader, supports reopening. She suggested school board members “develop specific, clear, evidence-based criteria on which to base the decision to return” and “take all necessary steps to significantly mitigate risks to staff and students in school.” Hawn also stressed the importance of board members along with communicating their plans to parents and teachers to enable families to make informed decisions.

“Despite heroic efforts from our teachers to try to make it work, I (and my children) remain utterly dissatisfied with remote learning,” Hawn wrote in a lengthy recent email to the board members. 

“They both recently expressed to me how much they hate school,” said Hawn who added, “they are clearly falling behind.”

Another parent, Jennifer Franklin, also praised the teachers’ “heroic efforts,” but she is also dissatisfied with the remote learning program, and how it is affecting her child.

“It is causing our child great distress, leading to great distress within our family,” she told the board. “As an only child without family in the area, our child needs more interaction with human beings than an online academic program is offering, and his social needs are leading to behavioral problems he didn’t have before COVID.”

Franklin later added that remote learning, “is not a sustainable academic program for our family; it’s causing more harm than good.”

Yet the vast majority of parents wanted the school board to reconsider reopening. 

Shana Brye, a healthcare provider and mother of an elementary-age daughter asked the board to re-evaluate the return to in-person instruction.

“As a nurse practitioner, health is paramount in my values, and I also highly value the need for quality education,” Brye wrote. “My concern is that as people move the virus spreads; given our record high numbers which will continue to surge given the upcoming holiday get-togethers. The data tells us that we will have positive COVID-19 cases and subsequently connected fatalities. Is it worth your child, your spouse, your teacher, your principal dying? Do you want it to be your family mourning? Life is more valuable than a desire to engage with friends in person.”

Julie Kent echoed Brye’s concerns, pointing to what she says are “alarming, recent trends in numbers of cases and hospitalizations.”

“I encourage you to keep students fully remote through the end of the [academic] year,” she said. “As much as virtual learning has been a strain on my family, it’s more important that we wait to send kids back until it is safe to do so.” 

The Durham school system 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 now want to begin Plan B, a set of state-mandated guidelines allowing elementary school students to return to their classrooms at a limited capacity. Until recently, the board had been reluctant to resume in-person classes. 

Pascal Mubenga, the superintendent of Durham County Public Schools, described the move to reopen the county’s 30 elementary schools a “tough decision.”

Of significant concern for Mubenga is the negative impact remote learning might be having on the younger students’ academic progress as an indicator of their future academic success.

“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 school board meeting.

Mubenga also noted that more than 50 percent of the students who matriculated from kindergarten during the previous academic year are below grade level, and that the current kindergartners may face insurmountable odds without the benefit of in-person learning.

“I hope to work extremely hard to get them where they need to be,” Mubenga said. “Otherwise it will be almost impossible for them to recover.”

The superintendent ruled out middle school students resuming in-person instruction, describing it as a “logistical nightmare.”

School board chair Bettina Umstead opened discussion of the school officials’ recommendations to re-open by pointing to the superintendent’s reassurances that if it’s deemed unsafe, they will not reopen.Umstead also proposed that the board members monitor the health metrics featured on the county’s COVID-19 dashboard in December and January, “to make sure it’s safe.”

But Millie Rosen, a seventh-grade teacher, thinks COVID cases across the state “are way too high to consider reopening in January, even if it’s only some students.”

Rosen says public school employees need a guarantee that staffers can choose not to return in-person without fear of losing their job if they’re worried for their or their family’s safety.

She also wants a “solid plan for metrics to determine when we will reopen as a district,” along with “a plan for how a positive case in a building will be handled in terms of notifying others and shutting down the building.”

Few teachers or other non-administrative Durham Public Schools employees spoke in favor of returning to in-person learning. But some supported the move.

“I am okay with going back, in the second semester, as long I have the proper protective gear to protect myself, my IA, and my students,” said Cynthia Thimme.

Megan Polzin agreed.

“Please bring our students back to school,” Polzin wrote. “They are struggling, we as teachers are struggling. Online learning, no matter how it is implemented, is not working. Students are not engaged, they are not growing, they are not learning. Bringing them back to school is the only option where the students come out of this successful.”

Board member Natalie Beyer said the plan’s “huge un-readiness” concerned her.

She reviewed school districts in New York, Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts where education officials are being very conservative and focusing on safety first, Beyer said.

“First, the [health] metrics aren’t conservative enough,” she said about the local schools plan. “A 3 percent positivity rate is the top of what I would want to see when we’re contemplating in-person, and we’re at 6 percent right now and rising.”

“I’m not comfortable with the metrics conversation being separate from this conversation because they are tied hand-in-hand,” she added.

Board member Matt Sears said he would not support the plan, “as is” because it needs refinement. He moved that the board ask school officials to continue revising the plan without an implementation date.

Sears is also concerned that the county’s infection rates have not trended downward since August when the school system began remote learning. And he questioned the positive benefits of face-to-face learning, versus the costs of high infection rates posing a danger to school staffers.

“I haven’t seen 10 to 14 days of declining rates yet,” he said. “Pandemic fatigue cannot be the reason we go back to school. I’m fatigued with it. We’re all fatigued with it.”

Mike Lee, the board’s vice-chair, voted in favor of the plan, “because even if there’s a remote possibility we can go back on January 21st, we have to have a plan.”

Lee said he was concerned with COVID-19 trends and what happens with infection rates over a period of time, and if the January infection rates are skyrocketing, he will vote against reopening in-person.

“If we don’t vote on this plan to move forward we wouldn’t be able to start on the 21st, period.” he said.

Board member Jovonia Lewis said that while she would support implementation of the plan as it is, it was important to take into account that the pandemic is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown families.

“How do we make room for families with the least flexibility, and the most need?” she asked. “How do we plan to keep families safe?”

Alexandra Valladares, who is the first Latinx member in Durham’s history to serve on the school board, said COVID-19 infection rates in Latinx communities have been extremely high, leading many people to prefer remote learning.

According to county health officials, Latinx residents account for more than 45 percent of Durham’s coronavirus cases. Black residents make up nearly 30 percent; white residents, a little over 20 percent. But the virus slammed the Latinx community over the summer; Latinx residents accounted for more than 70 percent of all cases in May, and more than 75 percent in June before dropping to 55 percent in July.

Valladares says she has witnessed a succession of fundraisers by the Latinx community to bury their loved ones. She points to informal surveys that show Latinx families opting for remote learning.

“Knowing what the rates are, they aren’t ready,” she said about the reopening plan. “They’re not ready yet.”

In the end, Ravin, Lee, Lewis, and Umstead voted in favor of the plan. Sears, Beyer, and Valladares voted against.

“There needs to be time for language access,” Valladares explained. “I’d like more time for us to do intentional outreach, and so I’m voting no.”

Despite the narrow approval, it’s unclear if Durham’s elementary schools will actually open as planned in January. That will depend in part on Lee, who could be a swing vote against reopening if COVID cases rise. Like so many aspects of the pandemic, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen more than a month from now, so parents, students, and school employees may just have to wait and see.

“I am not comfortable with returning to the classroom,” Monica Crouse wrote to the board members. “My family has already been through COVID [illnesses] and deaths. I am not interested in dramatically increasing my interactions with the outside world and risking more COVID sickness and death upon my family.”

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