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School board votes on temporary move to remote learning

After a lengthy discussion Tuesday night about how to approach the start of the new semester in January, a 4-4 vote by the Beaufort County Schools Board of Education stopped a motion to have all students learn virtually for the first two weeks of the semester.

Instead, the district will continue to handle spikes in COVID-19 cases on a school-by-school basis. If any particular school reports a spike in coronavirus cases over the holiday break, Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman said he will use input from the school board to decide whether or not to temporarily switch all in-person classes at that school to online learning.

The idea of having all grades start the semester with two weeks of virtual learning stemmed from concerns about a potential spike in COVID-19 cases following the holiday season. Eltha Booth, E.C. Peed, Terry Williams and Vice Chairman Michael Bilbro voted in favor of starting the semester with virtual learning, while T.W. Allen, Butch Oliver, Terry Draper and Chairwoman Carolyn Walker voted against that motion. Board member Mac Hodges was absent from the meeting.

Walker was the last board member to cast her vote. She said she’d spoken to teachers, staff members and families about moving to virtual learning.

“Had I gotten a 50-50 response, I’d be straddling the fence,” Walker said. “But I didn’t. I got about a 75% ‘bring our kids back to school’ response.”

Several board members and principals spoke about the importance of athletics, and how those activities would be affected if in-person learning weren’t conducted at the start of the semester. Southside High School Principal Rick Anderson noted that if a suspension of athletics corresponded with the potential temporary shift to virtual learning, local teams set to start play in January would have their truncated seasons cut down even more.

“That seems like maybe a lame excuse to elementary schools that don’t have athletics,” Walker said. “But sometimes that’s the only reason your kids are coming.”

Board members noted that the post-holiday season COVID trends — and how the district reacts to those trends — will have more to do with decisions made by adults than decisions made by students.

“We saw what happened after Thanksgiving — people are still going to gather,” Walker said. “We cannot police the actions of our adults, nor do we really want to.”

The five-day rule

In other business, the school board voted unanimously in favor of shortening the scope of a remote-learning policy known as the “10-rule” to five days, as well as expanding that policy to also include students taking in-person classes.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, a student can’t be marked absent on a remote learning day solely because they didn’t log into their online lesson on that particular day.

Each online class includes a daily announcement, which is an activity students complete in order to be marked present. The district’s original remote learning plan, which was crafted and submitted prior to the start of the current school year, states that teachers must count a student present if they miss an online class but complete that day’s announcement within 10 days — the maximum amount of time teachers were originally granted access to change attendance records in the PowerSchool application.

Cheeseman said that, in addition to the time restraint on PowerSchool, the 10-day timeframe originated from the district’s need at the start of the school year to distribute assignments and supplies to students who didn’t have internet access at that time. He said a survey of BCS principals last week revealed that there are now just 13 students within the district who need those accommodations.

Cheeseman said he asked principals at each of the district’s 14 schools to meet with their respective school improvement teams and decide if and how they’d want the 10-day rule to change. One school asked for the current plan to stay the same, one school asked to reduce the time frame to seven days, five schools asked to reduce it to five days, four schools asked for a three-day window and three schools asked to reduce it to one day. Based on the fact that seven schools asked for a time frame of five or more days, and an equal amount asked for less than five days, Cheeseman recommended that the scope of the rule be shortened to five days.

Concerns remained about how in-person students are graded in comparison to remote-learning students, as well as the amount of assignments teachers receive near the end of each attendance-tracking period.

“Y’all handle the attendance however you want, that’s not my issue,” Williams said.

“My issue is I want the face-to-face [students] to get the same break that the [remote students] do.”

“I really still struggle with the work dumping that’s happening to our teachers,” Walker said. “On day five, they get everybody’s work in.”

Cheeseman responded by saying that the school board’s grading policy hasn’t changed.

“So, the behavior of teachers is what drives the behavior of students,” Cheeseman said. “If a teacher assigns some type of lesson, and then chooses not to collect that later on, not to assign a penalty, that’s on the teacher. The principal looks at the totality of the grade. The teachers are charged with documenting the grades.”