The Sylva Herald, By Dave Russell

Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education could go a long way in determining how local schools will open on Aug. 17. Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference last Tuesday to lay out some tweaks to previous measures set forth by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

DHHS had established three plans – A, B, and C – for schools to follow.

“One of the things the school board has to decide whether or not they want to go forward with the new version of Plan B, or if they would like to go with Plan C,” Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan said. 

Plan A, full attendance, is out of the question, as the state’s COVID-19 numbers have failed to improve to an appropriate level.

Plan B would limit attendance to about half in the building at any given time, a combination of in-school and remote learning.

Plan C would be remote only. 

Cooper gave school systems the option of using Plan B or Plan C. The school board had voted July 7 that Pre-K-5 students would attend daily, while middle- and high-school students would alternate weeks. However, new guidelines on determining classroom capacity may force that plan to be changed.

“Within our new Plan B, one of the major decisions is whether or not we will be alternating students every other day or every other week,” Buchanan said. “Under the new guidelines set forth by the governor, we cannot have all the students in the classroom at the same time. We’ll have pros and cons of each that we will lay out for the board to make that decision.”

With Pre-K-5 students making up half the county’s student total, the new plan would affect many families, he said.

There has been a switch from in-school attendance being limited by school capacity to limits based on classroom size.

The school system is measuring classrooms this week, Buchanan said.

“It’s looking as if we’re going to be at that 50 percent capacity, with most classrooms being able to hold maybe 14-18 kids,” he said. “There can be outliers on that, just because our schools are so different.”

Plans for buses have not changed.

“We’ll be going with one kid per seat, or two kids from the same household,” Buchanan said. “We are working on a bus monitor plan and looking for bus monitors. We still will be screening students prior to them getting on the bus.”

Some of the buses would have to run their routes twice but which ones has not been determined, he said.

The school system is contacting every family in Jackson County schools and asking them two questions: Do you intend to have your student attend face-to-face, or do you intend to have them learning completely remote? Do you plan on using school system transportation?

“We’re thinking that a large percentage of families are choosing not to utilize our bus transportation, so there will be some routes that have to be double routes, but it won’t be the triple and quadruple routes that it could possibly be if everyone rode the bus,” he said. “It is totally a family’s choice whether or not their student is fully remote or comes in. Families who are nervous about having their child physically in the school buildings, we understand that and we want to be supportive of those families and kids. We’ll have remote options for them to select.”

All students, even down to kindergartners, would be required to wear a mask, Buchanan said.

“We’ve done the research and consulted with the health department and shields will not take the place of masks,” he said. “We’re developing a process for what to do when there are medical reasons a mask cannot be worn.”

The schools are looking for volunteers to help as bus monitors, screening at the door taking temperatures and assistance with meals, etc., he said.

“We’re going to ramp up a campaign next week to try and get volunteers in the schools,” he said. Buchanan expects an announcement about athletics “sometime before Aug. 1.”

“Jackson County Public Schools Administration and the JCPS Board of Education strive to make decisions in the best interest of safety for all,” Superintendent Kim Elliott said. “As always, parents will make decisions for their children regarding school re-entry. We will certainly accommodate remote learning needs for students when school is in session.”