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Second forum addresses fresh schooling concerns

PINETOWN — Beaufort County Schools held its second of three community forums on what the fall semester looks like Tuesday evening at Northside High School, presenting a slightly different plan than the one promoted at Washington High School a week earlier. In the meantime, between the two forums, the Beaufort County Board of education voted 5-4 to begin the school year with four weeks of remote learning.

Throughout the forum, BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman and other district-level staff addressed a fresh set of concerns prompted by the decision to start with remote learning, ranging from access to technology to arrangements for working families whose children will not be in school.

One of the major issues with remote learning as it played out last spring was the lack of access to broadband internet in the home, which created a situation where some students had access to online resources and others were instructed mainly via paper packets sent home from school. To help address the issue, Cheeseman said the Board of Education has allotted nearly $300,000 to purchase 1,068 wireless hotspots that will allow students to get online from the home.

“We’re being thoughtful and really trying hard in terms of reaching out to everyone,” Cheeseman said. “There may be cases where we’re going to have to help students in terms of their connection, but our board of education has made decisions over the past 21 days to make sure we have a device for every single child.”

Another major concern raised by parents since BCS announced its plan to continue remote learning has been how working families can make arrangements for childcare. In short, Cheeseman’s answer was, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t have a plan for each and every family that has to work,” Cheeseman said. “I can’t do that for you. But we have a plan for how we’re going to try and educate your students, and we’re hoping you can help us with that for the next four weeks. If COVID cases continue to rise, and for whatever reason, the authority above us puts out an executive order that says we’re going to Plan C, we’re all going to have to do this. So we have to pause for a moment, take a breath and realize, this is our normal right now. This is our reality right now.”

The superintendent emphasized the need for open lines of communication between schools and families to make the fall semester work. While he encouraged parents and students to reach out to staff members during the school day, he also asked that teachers and administrators have their personal time at home respected, saying that some teachers were working between 14 and 15 hours per day to take care of their students.

“We’re trying not to set a precedent in scheduling where our children will be ‘in school’ online during school hours,” Cheeseman said. “It is so very important that at home, after school hours, (our teachers) enjoy life and enjoy family time. We believe that some of you lost that, and I’m sorry for that.”

Looking at the overall situation of reopening schools this fall, Cheeseman said there are many factors to take into consideration as the school system sets plans in motion and begins the process of educating students again.

“There are going to be times when you ask me questions and I say, ‘I don’t know the answer.’” Cheeseman said. “There are going to be times when you ask me questions, and I’m going to say to you, ‘We’re going to do our very best.’ There are going to be times when you look at me and ask me questions, and I’m going to say, ‘It wasn’t our decision, but this is where we are right now.’”

To view a full recording of the second forum, visit www.beaufort.k12.nc.us and click the livestream link on the homepage.