Northampton classrooms to reopen

Published 6:03 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2021

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JACKSON – By a unanimous vote from the Northampton County Board of Education, students will have the option to return to the classroom on March 15.

The decision was made at a special called meeting of the board on Feb. 22. Superintendent Dr. Pamela Chamblee presented her recommendation that the school district reopen under Plan A for parents who want their students to return to in-person learning.

This reopening option will bring students back five days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., shortening the school day by an hour to give staff more time for sanitizing and disinfecting each day after classes are over. This plan will apply to public school students in all grades.

“It’s just easier for us to plan high school scheduling if we have all our kids back Monday through Friday,” the superintendent explained.

Chamblee emphasized that all the safety protocols to protect students and staff must be adhered to when schools reopen.

“We’re going to continue to follow the 3Ws, [such as] wearing your mask appropriately. And wearing a mask appropriately means over their nose and over their mouth,” she explained, but also noted the district has face shields available for students who may struggle with masks.

“If students refuse to follow the safety protocols, then they’re going to have to return to a virtual option. So we want people to know and understand that,” she continued.

Under Chamblee’s recommendation, parents will have until March 22 to decide which option (in-person or virtual) is best for their children. After that, they won’t be able to switch until the end of the school year.

“Logistically, we won’t be able to keep switching people back and forth. We will know how many are coming each day. We will have spacing right in each classroom,” she clarified.

The district is choosing to reopen schools now due to NC Senate Bill 37, which would require schools across the state to offer an in-person learning option to students. The bill passed both the state senate and the house and was sent to Gov. Cooper for consideration on Feb. 17.

If Cooper does not approve, he has the option to let the bill become law without his signature or to veto it. But it’s expected that there’s enough bipartisan support to override a veto if necessary.

Chamblee said they still intend to reopen schools now, regardless of what happens with the bill. Being prepared ahead of time, she said, will ensure they have plans in place for all the safety protocols and will be able to address any issues which may come up as students return.

After presenting her recommendations, Chamblee answered questions from the Board about the reopening plan.

Board member Tony Burnette asked for more information about what safety procedures will be implemented on school buses.

“We’ll have social distancing on the buses,” Chamblee explained, but noted that siblings from the same household will be able share the same seat.

She also added it won’t be the full district returning to in-person learning since many parents opted to remain virtual, meaning there will be fewer students riding the buses each day. The district gathered information based on an online survey and phone calls to families to determine a detailed estimate on how many would be returning. The results showed about 37 percent chose the in-person option.

The superintendent said they didn’t expect that number to increase too much during the first week back, but they are prepared to adjust procedures for the buses if necessary.

Board member Josephine Dunn asked about vaccinations for school personnel, and Chamblee answered they were working with the health department to try to make the vaccine available to them soon.

Dr. Marjorie Edwards, another Board member, shared a submitted question about having enough teachers to implement in-person learning. Chamblee explained that teachers will have the opportunity to work remotely or work in-person, depending on what they’re more comfortable with. The district does not plan to employ any extra teachers.

“We didn’t just start planning a week ago,” Chamblee said of the guidelines and protocols they’ve put together for reopening safely. “We started preparing for the reopening of school back in July. This has been ongoing.”

“We feel confident with what we have,” she emphasized.

M. Edwards motioned to approve Chamblee’s reopening recommendations, and Board member Theresa Scott provided the second. The vote was unanimously in favor.

In addition to reopening plans, the Board also discussed allowing students to participate in athletics again.

Burnette explained they hadn’t been comfortable with athletics resuming while the district was following the all-virtual plan, but now with schools reopening, “I feel this is the time to move forward.”

Board member Lucy Edwards added, “even those students who are learning virtually will have the opportunity to participate in athletics.”

“The students and parents need to understand this: although we are allowing athletics to occur effective immediately,” said Board Chair Rhonda Taylor, “they still have to pass their classes in order to play.”

Burnette motioned to approve the athletics recommendation, and M. Edwards provided the second. Once again, the vote passed unanimously.

“I definitely look forward to our students returning. This is kind of exciting to me because they’ve been gone so long. I welcome them back to their Northampton County home, and I look forward to making sure we’re looking at what they need to be successful to end their year,” concluded Dr. Chamblee.