By Heather Smith Craig
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) Board of Education convened for a special meeting Aug. 3 2021 to consider health and safety recommendations for the opening of schools put forth by Superintendent of CHCCS schools Dr. Nyah Hamlett and a temporary waiver of bus ride-time limits due to an ongoing school bus-driver shortage.
In her presentation, Dr. Hamlett recommended that the board adopt a universal mask requirement inside of CHCCS buildings and outdoors when a minimum distance of 3 feet cannot be maintained. She based her recommendations on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the North Carolina Department of Heath and Human Services (NCDHHS) and on research reported by the ABC Science Collaborative, as well as the interim guidance of the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit. Those with certain medical or behavioral conditions or disabilities would be exempted from the masking requirement.
Remote learning via the district’s virtual academy will continue to be available for students considered “medically fragile,” that is, students with documented high-risk medical conditions requiring a remote learning environment. The Virtual Learning Academy is only available for students in grades 9-12. Fewer than 100 eligible high-school students in the district have applied to attend the Virtual Learning Academy. Many written public comments requested a (dedicated) virtual option for students, especially for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to health conditions or age.
Board member Mary Ann Wolff inquired whether the district could offer a virtual option for grades K-8. Dr. Hamlett responded that, “the Toolkit removed the references to Plan A, B or C,” i.e., the plans which include a remote instruction option. “Our district does not have the authority to create a remote learning environment,” she said. “Unless it is through a Virtual Learning Academy. So in order for us to provide remote learning for K-8, the board would have to consider what resources are needed, and that would require additional planning.”
The issue of whether or not to require universal masking received little discussion; board members seemed to universally agree that masking was the best option.
During the brief discussion, board members reiterated their support for universal mask wearing, but sought to clarify what roles testing and quarantining would play. Board member Wolff worried that staff who had to quarantine themselves would run out of sick days. CHCCS Head of Human Resources Erika Newkirk assured the board that teachers would be able to take ‘contagious disease leave,’ and would have a substitute provided for them by the state (teachers typically have to pay their own substitute if they take a sick day). Non-instructional staff who are quarantining but otherwise healthy will be able to work remotely during their quarantine.
The Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (updated July 29, 2021) also recommends that staff who are either unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is undisclosed should be tested to screen for COVID-19 at least once per week in an effort to catch new or asymptomatic infections early. Orange County’s current community transmission level is designated as ‘substantial.’ For communities with ‘substantial community spread’, the Toolkit recommends testing unvaccinated students, teachers and staff once a week, and twice-weekly screening testing for high-risk sports and extracurricular activities. (The CDC classifies community transmission levels based on the total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days, and “substantial” transmission is defined as 50-99 cases. “Low” transmission, the lowest designation possible, is defined as 0-9 cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days. Where the level of transmission is classified as low, the CDC does not recommend screening testing.)
If screening testing detects new cases among students, faculty, or staff, individuals who have been in contact with the infected persons may need to quarantine. Quarantining thus may result in otherwise healthy students being out of school, and if the number of students required to quarantine is sufficiently high, classrooms and teachers may have to temporarily switch to a hybrid model. The actual number of quarantining students that would trigger this switch has not yet been specified. Dr. Hamlett discussed the possible purchase of additional in-class cameras for this purpose, but stressed that, despite the district’s policy of providing every student with a computer device, the devices will be used as tools in the classroom, and will not be the primary mode of instruction.
Exceptional students (EC) under quarantine will continue their specialized instruction in collaboration with their educators, case managers and caregivers.
Board member Rani Dasi asked how students should prepare for quarantining, and Dr. Hamlett responded that students should take their computer device home every night.
Board members approved the motion to approve the administration’s recommendations for universal mask wearing on school grounds, both inside and outside, and mandatory testing for unvaccinated athletes and unvaccinated staff. These requirements will be reassessed at the end of each academic quarter.
Discussion then turned to the district’s efforts to cope with an ongoing shortage of school-bus drivers. CHCCS Transportation Director Brad Johnson asked the board to consider a temporary waiver that would allow student bus rides to last up to one hour and 15 minutes each way. Mr. Johnson reported that the ongoing bus driver shortage has left 26 bus-driver positions vacant in our district despite aggressive marketing and a highly-competitive salary, in addition to offering signing, referral and attendance bonuses. Mr. Johnson believes that about 94 students would be affected by the waiver, and 25 of those students would have ride times of over an hour.
Board discussion focused on the possibility of raising salaries. Mr. Johnson reported that the district already offers a very competitive salary and said that, traditionally, raising the salaries just causes the counties around us to raise theirs as well in a salary arms race. Additionally, CHCCS has to compete with Amazon and Chapel Hill Transit for drivers.
Board member Deon Temne asked about providing WiFi onboard buses, and board member Ashton Powell said WiFi was an equity issue — students who have their own WiFi can do their homework while riding the bus.
The board voted to approve the 1-year waiver and requested additional information about which students will be most affected by this waiver. The board also plans to revisit the issue of increasing bus driver salaries.