By Ellie Heffernan
Students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools won’t see a return to any form of in-person instruction until at least March.
The city school board decided at its meeting this week not to shift to hybrid instruction in January due to worsening COVID-19 metrics as well as opposition from teachers and parents,
“We’ve seen such a spike [in COVID-19 cases] that’s become alarming,” said Interim Superintendent Jim Causby. “And everything that I’m reading and everything that I’m hearing is that there’s an expectation that the number of positive cases is going to continue to increase.”
And the target for the return of at least a hybrid form of instruction, melding in-person and remote schooling, could still be delayed even further since no solid return date was agreed upon at the board’s meeting.
The board cannot implement a return to in-person instruction until five weeks after issuing the decision to do so. To implement hybrid instruction in January, they would have needed to greenlight the process at their recent meeting.
Orange County is averaging 26.5 cases per 100,000 residents, according to a New York Times database. Case numbers in the county and throughout the state have increased in the past few weeks.
Causby noted that officials expect another case spike to follow Christmas, similar to one that occurred after Thanksgiving. Feedback from CHCCS parents also has changed, said the interim superintendent.
“You have received as I have, literally dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of messages over the last week,” Causby said, addressing the board.
“There’s a difference in those messages now than what there used to be. Back in the summer when we looked at this, they were running maybe 50-50. About 50 percent of folks saying, ‘Let’s get kids back in school.’ Fifty percent were saying, ‘No, let’s go with remote learning.’ Those have totally changed, I guess probably my emails and messages now are running 30 to 1, saying ‘Let’s stay in virtual.’”
The board also discussed a survey of more than 1,000 district teachers — 84 percent of whom do not want to return to in-person instruction. One-fifth of these teachers said they would request family and medical leave if asked to do in-person instruction.
The number of available substitute teachers also affected the board’s decision. CHCCS has 123 substitute teachers, which it must share with nearby districts. If 10 percent of teachers were unable to teach in-person due to COVID-19, that would require the use of 104 substitute teachers.
Although some board members asked if the five-week period between decision and implementation could be shortened, Patrick Abele, assistant superintendent for support services, said that would not be possible.
“It’s gonna be a shift in daycare. It’s gonna be a shift in schedules for parents and families, and so we know that’s an impact and try to get that information to families as soon as possible,” Abele said.
Although the process of implementation takes five weeks, families only have to be notified of instructional changes three weeks before they go into effect.
“Some folks would argue that’s not enough time for me to change and try to find new providers or daycare, etc.,” Abele said. “Some would argue that’s probably enough time, so we felt like at least three weeks prior to students starting, families should have the official notification. From that, there’s also mask exemptions, information in there about when to come back to pick up your masks.”
The board ultimately decided to set a loose target of shifting to hybrid instruction in March. But further discussion of the target was postponed until the board’s January meeting, where members will also have more recent metrics that would determine whether or not to reopen.
However, if the board waits until the school year’s fourth quarter to go hybrid, high school instruction could remain fully virtual due to staggered reopening plans. Board members suggested adjusting the possibility of staggering the process and potentially moving spring break to allow high schoolers to attend hybrid instruction. But no decisions were taken on that idea.