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State Board hears update from DHHS following Cooper’s announcement on schools reopening

State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis opened Friday’s virtual meeting by extending condolences to members of the Halifax community following the death of Teicher Patterson earlier this month. Patterson, who was voted 2020 principal of the year for the county, died of COVID-19. Davis said this is a reminder to the Board that they have to consider the health of students and staff, particularly as they heard updates from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

The Board also discussed K-3 reading diagnostic tools and advanced teaching roles. Here’s what you need to know.

Updates on DHHS guidance

Following Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement on schools reopening this fall, the State Board heard an update on guidance issued since June 11 from DHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry.

Davis emphasized that plan B, which allows in-person instruction with social distancing and other guidelines, provides consistent expectations that are based on science. Schools can also choose to go fully remote under plan C, which some already have. He said he knows these choices haven’t been easy but recognizes that they were made with “thoughtful care and concern.”

Much of Perry’s presentation was review for the State Board and the public, but you can click through it below.

The full updated toolkit for schools is online here.

Two important changes that Perry highlighted for the Board were the wording of the guidance on when to wear masks and when children can return to school after a positive test:

  • The guidance now says face coverings are required for all K-12 students and staff at all times when on school grounds and while traveling, not just when within six feet of another person. 
  • Students may return to school if they are asymptomatic for 24 hours. DHHS decreased this from the original 72 hours in response to guidance from the CDC, according to DHHS Senior Early Childhood Policy Advisor Rebecca Planchard.

Davis said if a student doesn’t comply with the face mask requirement, they will be offered remote instruction.

The Board spent some time discussing how to make it easier for young students to wear masks. DHHS staff said they’ve explored different options, such as allowing students to decorate their masks.

In addition to these changes, Perry said DHHS removed a requirement that schools adopt a 50% reduction in capacity and is instead just recommending that six feet of distance is maintained.

“That gives schools a bit more flexibility to think about how they’re staggering and what the reduction is that’s necessary to implement the social distancing requirements,” she said.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell asked if there’s a waiver process for districts or charter schools that feel they can operate safely under Plan A, the least restrictive model that allows for in-person instruction.

Perry clarified that there is no waiver process, but generally speaking, their hope is that the risks to students and staff are being taken seriously.

“We are assuming that districts are complying with the requirements,” she said. “There are a variety of tools available for enforcement, but our starting point is always going to be about technical assistance and engaging with folks to help meet the requirements as they’re laid out.”

Perry also said the elimination of the 50% reduction requirement was meant to give flexibility to smaller districts and charter schools to allow more students to take part in in-person instruction if they’re able to. As long as a district provides a remote option and has put social distancing requirements in place, they’re following Plan B, she said.

The toolkit specifies that the state has purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and staff, but the Board’s Teacher of the Year Advisor Mariah Morris said she hopes the state will consider providing N95 masks to teachers rather than cloth face masks. Morris said the Board needs to preserve the workforce as they move to the “frontlines of society” for instruction to happen successfully.

She also raised concerns about whether or not Exceptional Children (EC) educators will have sufficient equipment.

“They will essentially be serving in the same capacity as our nurses and our doctors are going to be serving,” Morris said.

As for when schools could reopen in full, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DHHS said they’re deferring to White House guidance that calls for a:

  • Downward trajectory of flu-like illness reported
  • Downward trajectory of COVID-19-like cases
  • Downward trajectory of documented cases
  • Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of all those tested

The state so far doesn’t meet any of those requirements.

Six K-3 reading diagnostic vendors approved

The State Board also considered what should be the last vote on which K-3 reading diagnostic tools districts can choose from for this school year. At a meeting earlier this month, the State Board approved four tools but left the door open for others to be approved as long as they provided more data about EVAAS compatibility.

Since then, two more vendors have come forward: Amplify and Edmentum. You can see more information on the chart below.

The Board approved these six vendors to be on the final list for districts pending this new information, but added that no more vendors can be considered this close to the start of the school year. DPI staff said they expect to have updated information from the two recently approved vendors within the next week to 10 days.

Advanced teaching roles compensation

The State Board revisited funding options for advanced teaching role compensation following questions about class sizes at its meeting earlier this month. The General Assembly allocated $1 million for the 8-year-long pilot program “to develop advanced teaching roles and organizational models that link teacher performance and professional growth to salary increases in selected local school administrative units for classroom teachers,” according to a request for proposals in January.

The following 13 districts submitted proposals back in April:

  • Brunswick County Schools
  • Cabarrus County Schools
  • Cherokee County Schools
  • Cumberland County Schools
  • Guilford County Schools
  • McDowell County Schools
  • Mt. Airy City Schools
  • Rowan-Salisbury Schools
  • Stanley County Schools
  • Thomasville City Schools
  • Vance County Schools
  • Wilson County Schools
  • Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

Earlier this month, the Board specifically asked how a district could move forward under funding option C, which meant they would not receive the full allotment. More information on the different funding models can be found in this presentation.

Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support for DPI, said they reached out to the potential grantees to see if they would still be able to operate if funding was reduced by around 10-20%, and districts said nothing substantive would need to change. However, districts may need to change the scope of the project under that model. This means the Board could move forward under option C, and members voted unanimously to do so.

The Board will meet again on August 5 and 6, which is its last meeting before the start of the school year.

Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the Director of Content for EducationNC.