By Heather Smith Craig
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) Board of Education met Aug. 19, 2021 to discuss CHCCS Superintendent Dr. Nyah Hamlett’s recommendation that the district adopt an “Alternative Learning Arrangement” (ALA) for K-8th graders who self-identify as ‘at-risk’ for COVID-19. The language used in the recommendation comes from the recently updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit and allows districts to create an alternative learning pathway that is neither hybrid learning nor a part of CHCCS’s Virtual Academy, which currently is offered only to high school students. Dr. Hamlett noted that 60% of high school students opted for remote instruction last year and that it therefore makes sense to give high school students this option for the current school year.
In her presentation, Dr. Hamlett led the board through the planning process district staff had undertaken and emphasized that last spring, with COVID numbers decreasing and vaccinations available, an in-person 2021-22 school year seemed assured. However, the situation changed when the Delta variant became the dominant form of COVID-19 infection in the U.S. and vaccination rates slowed. As of Aug. 17, 2021, 76% of Orange County residents are vaccinated, but only 64% of eligible children are vaccinated. According to Dr. Hamlett, more than 75% of CHCCS schools currently serve students who are unvaccinated, that is, all elementary and middle schools. “No one was quite prepared for the Delta variant,” she said,
Orange County’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) risk designation changed from “moderate”—that is, fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 population over the past four weeks—July 16, 2021 to “very high”—that is, more than 500 new cases per 100,000 population over the past four weeks— one month later. According to Dr. Hamlett, other key variables that influenced the district’s decision-making included test positivity rate (currently under 5%), and Intensive-Care Unit (ICU) bed occupancy in local hospitals (86.1% for all beds, 88.8% for ICU beds).
The ALA will consist of approximately 225 minutes of asynchronous learning time and 120 minutes of live synchronous instruction per day, depending on the district’s ability to hire local staff. The ALA program will begin Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 and families can opt to not send their students to school in the meantime. ALA students will have teacher check-ins and be given work to complete at home. Families who choose the ALA program will have to commit to this mode of instruction for the entire semester, but can re-enroll for in-person instruction within 21 days if the student 1) receives vaccination within the 21-day period; 2) has too many absences; or 3) exhibits persistent difficulties completing assigned work. Students enrolled in the ALA will be required to take all tests and standardized assessments for their grade, and these may be taken in-person. Students in the ALA may still participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, on a case-by-case basis.
Under the ALA, students with an Individualized Education Plan or 504 plan will meet with school staff to discuss service delivery and accommodations. Students enrolled in dual-language programs will not receive dual language instruction and can only participate in the ALA for one semester without losing their dual-language seat. Students in the Newcomer program will continue to receive language services under the ALA.
CHCCS Executive Director for Assessment and Research Diane Villwock sent district parents an Alternative Learning Commitment form for K-8 students Aug. 20. Those wishing to enroll their children in the ALA must return the form by 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27. A more detailed description of the ALA plan is available here.
Board members had a lot of information to absorb. Board member Mary Ann Wolff worried about being able to recruit current teachers to do the extra work the ALA will require, which she felt would impinge on teachers’ planning time and place an extra burden on them. Dr. Hamlett responded that the new positions are all voluntary, and that CHCCS administrators have spoken to principals and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators about the proposal. According to Dr. Hamlett, the latter was supportive but asked that ALA teachers receive additional help and resources. In response to a question from board member Lisa Kaylie about class size, Dr. Hamlett said that synchronous classrooms would be capped at around 17 students. “We just want to make sure that teachers have the support and resources they need,” Dr. Hamlett said.
Board member Deon Temne asked how attendance will be recorded. CHCCS Chief of School Support and Wellness Dr. Charlos Banks said that the district will work with the state Department of Public Instruction to classify participation in the ALA as an ‘excused absence’ so as not to affect school funding.
Board member Ashton Powell asked about academic assessments for students who transition back into the classroom. Dr. Hamlett replied that there would be ongoing assessments during the ALA.
CHCCS Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Scott anticipates that about 200 students will enroll in the ALA program, which will require the district to hire roughly 32 teachers with varying qualifications, including elementary- and middle-school core subject teachers, four specials (e.g., art, music, physical education) teachers and Exceptional Child, English Learner and Gifted-Education teachers, which in total will equal the cost of about 9 full-time positions.
Two citizens honored at Aug. 12 meeting
The BOE also met the previous week, Aug. 12.
At that meeting, in one of its first items of business, the Board recognized two citizens for their contributions to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community. The first, Joal Broun, is a former BOE member who resigned her position after being appointed as a Judicial District court judge July 7, 2021. She received a plaque honoring her service and was lauded by board members for her service to the community, her dedication to the district’s students, her leadership and for mentoring new BOE members. In her remarks, Judge Broun emphasized that the important work of education is carried out not only by teachers but also by bus drivers, janitors and the many other district staff on whose work our schools depend. “Education,” she said, “makes a qualitative difference in somebody’s life.”
Stan Vickers, the son of Lattice and Thomas Lee Vickers, was the first Black student to attend Chapel Hill High School in 1961 after his parents successfully sued the district to allow him to be reassigned from the segregated Lincoln High School. Jeff Nash, CHCCS Executive Director of Community Relations, introduced Mr. Vickers with a short video that described Mr. Vickers’s experience and that of some of his contemporaries as he made the transition from Lincoln High School to Chapel Hill High School. In his remarks, Mr. Vickers told of the difficulties he experienced, described the ways the two high schools differed and spoke of the sense of community among the Black students and faculty that was lost in the process of desegregation. He also said that he benefited from experiencing the two different educational systems. “I got to see a different world,” he said, and added, “Every child should have the right to a good education.” The video presented to the School Board can be viewed here. The board passed a resolution recognizing “the historic accomplishments of the Vickers family” and gratefully acknowledging “their significant contributions to our students and our community.”
The board then proceeded to unanimously approve the adoption of the CHCCS budget for 2021-22. BOE Chair Jillian LaSerna praised staff for creating an accessible Budget Book that she called “very readable.”
Superintendent Dr. Hamlett and CHCCS Chief of Staff and School Leadership Brandy Reeves then presented an overview of the district’s strategic planning process, after which the board members agreed to revisit the mission and core values laid out in the district’s strategic plan. Board members Rani Dasi and Mary Ann Wolff felt that the strategic planning process should be paused until after the beginning of the school year, to facilitate participation on the steering committee by parents and community leaders. Ms. Dasi also emphasized that the strategic plan should be informed by the ongoing equity audit, and that work on the strategic plan should thus wait until the completion of the audit. Board member Ashton Powell stressed that the results from mental health screenings/surveys should also inform the strategic plan. Board member Deon Temne was eager for the process to begin because, he said, it informs everything else. He asked that the administration inform the board about how quickly they can complete the strategic planning work. The district will hire Insight Education Group to help guide the steering committee, create surveys and design the plan’s graphics at a cost of $76,500.
The board revisited the issue of how much the district pays school bus drivers, as there continues to be a shortage of drivers. CHCCS CFO Jonathan Scott estimated that the cost of increasing the starting hourly pay for drivers from the current $14.95 amount to $16.50 would be $252,000, a figure that was already approved as a recurring expense at the BOE’s June 10 meeting. Mr. Scott said that the cost of increasing the starting rate for drivers to $17.25, $18.00 or $18.75 would range from $157,300 to $471,900.
Finally, the board received an update on the interim agreement with local law enforcement School Resource Officers (SROs)—i.e., law enforcement personnel assigned to schools—which is currently being reviewed by the district’s attorneys. The board asked questions regarding students’ Miranda rights, SRO training and about who would serve as substitute SROs. Ms. LaSerna suggested that the district should collect data on SRO-student interactions.
The next school board meeting will be held Sept. 2 at 6 p.m. in the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.