The Transylvania Times -

School Board Hears Updates On Reopening, COVID-19 – Transylvania County, NC


Last updated 8/13/2020 at 10:41am

The Transylvania County Board of Education received an update Monday evening from both Elaine Russell, director of Transylvania Public Health, and Superintendent Jeff McDaris as the school system prepares to open under Plan B this coming Monday.

“They have been great to work with and they are really providing us the guidance on what we do in all situations,” said McDaris of the local health department.

Russell said the school system has done an outstanding job of balancing the needs of all students with the health of the entire community with it plans to reopen schools.

“My hats off to you all,” said Russell. “I know that a lot of work and planning went into that strategy. The practices and framework the school system has put into place around your screening mechanisms is excellent. I think you’ve done a very good job.”

Russell said on July 2, Transylvania County had 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

By the end of July, that number had increased to 127.

“So July was absolutely our most exponential month for seeing the impact of COVID in our community,” she said.

She said the increase in cases seems to have “slowed down.” As of Monday, there had been 3,392 COVID-19 tests, 145 confirmed cases, 12 hospitalizations and one death in the county.

Russell said the county’s positivity rate is 3 percent, which is a “very good metric” considering the state’s goal is to have a positivity rate below 5 percent.

She attributed the good results to community members generally following the health protocols of wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart and washing their hands regularly.

“We must remain focused on those prevention and control measures for keeping our community as safe as we possibly can,” said Russell.

Russell said the health department looked at the trends that may have been responsible for the dramatic increase in cases during July and found travel by residents outside the county and visitors into the county as a driving force.

“We felt that our big influence in the month of July cycled back to that travel, vacation, dynamic,” said Russell. “We have definitely felt the external impact of COVID in our community.”

Russell said that 15 percent – 21 cases – of COVID-19 have been in the 0-17 age group.

The breakdown for those ages is: Under 1, two cases; 1-2 age group, two cases; 3-4 age group, one case; 5-10 age group, three cases; 11-13 age group, four cases; and 14-17 age group, nine cases.

“The majority of those cases have come more as we have gone into the summer,” she said.

While July saw a dramatic increase in cases, Russell said, “Things probably will get interesting when we get to flu season,” which officially begins on Oct. 1.

School board member Alice Wellborn asked Russell if there was any evidence of significant community spread at this time.

“I think we are on the cusp of potentially seeing that right now,” said Russell. “We’ve got one or two situations that we are looking at and educated heavily into a couple of households.

“We are hoping that they will abide by our guidance and refrain from some church and community activities so that it does not facilitate further spread.”

She said she would have a better sense of that situation in about five to seven days.

“We have a few cases here and there. They don’t know where they got it. We can’t figure out where they got it. Who knows?” said Russell. “We have not seen community spread like other entities have. I hope that will hold.”

She reiterated that the keys to stopping community spread are wearing face masks, social distancing and washing hands.

Wellborn asked if there were a case in school, would the health department consider that a workplace situation and handle the case.

Russell said if a child, employee or volunteer in the schools is suspected of having COVID-19 and was tested, that person would remain quarantined until the test results came back.

If the person tested positive, the health department would be notified and school nurses would begin a “thorough review of how operations had been flowing in that classroom to identify who was and who was not exposed.”

“You need a collective 15 minutes of being within 6 feet of someone for it to count as an exposure,” said Russell.

She said that if the health department found general protective measures had not been followed in a classroom and there could be a significant group at risk, they would analyze if a larger group would need to be tested.

Russell said there is no “one magical number” to use as a reference for closing down a classroom or school.

The health department would look at balancing the threat of the coronavirus in each situation with the social, emotional, educational and psychological well being of children. They would also look to see if the coronavirus is contained to one classroom or cohort.

“If you start thinking beyond one or two classrooms, it could get very complicated for your operations,” said Russell.

She said the “limiting factor” for the school system would be the number of available teachers. If a certain number of teachers had to be isolated or quarantined, that would have a significant impact on whether or not a school could remain open.

“I think it would have to be a very nuanced approach across the system,” said Russell.

Wellborn asked if the schools have enough nurses.

Russell said the school system’s three school nurses would have the support of the health department when it comes to COVID-19 testing and tracing.

“It’s a team approach,” said Russell. “It’s an all hands on deck endeavor. We’re all in it together.”

Board Chair Tawny McCoy asked Russell if she had reviewed the school plan and if she thought it is a good plan.

“I am in total support of what you have designed and planned. I think you have a thoughtful approach to it. You’ve accommodated the needs and interests of those that want to do the virtual pathway and the needs and interests of those that want to do in-person instruction,” said Russell.

McDaris said about 29 percent of the students have opted to learn entirely from home while 71 percent have opted for face-to-face instruction two days a week.

“There’s still going to be a little ebb and flow in those numbers,” said McDaris, adding that the percentages would roughly stay the same when school begins.

The breakdown for those enrolled in the virtual learning path is roughly equal of one-third each at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Vice Chair Ron Kiviniemi said the number of students choosing virtual learning and the relatively even breakdown among elementary, middle and high schools should make it easier to maintain social distancing.

He said in a class of 27, if one-third are always learning from home and the remaining 18 students come to school on alternate days, that would equate to just nine students in the classroom on any given day.

McDaris said teachers have been “great” at adjusting to any changes and have shown a willingness to do a combination of things to make reopening work.

Even though there have been a few teachers who chose to retire and a few have been granted a leave of absence, there are enough teachers to cover all of the classes and still adhere to the state’s class size mandates.

Board member Courtney Domokur asked if there would be enough substitute teachers.

“In a normal situation, we don’t have enough substitutes,” said Assistant Superintendent Brian Weaver.

Weaver said the school system would have approximately 15 fewer substitutes this year than last year.

“What are we going to do?” asked Wellborn.

McDaris said that in the past administrators and other teachers have sometimes covered classes.

Kiviniemi said since teachers would not be attending conferences and workshops during the school day, that would reduce the need for substitute teachers.

Weaver said teachers who teach online may still be able to teach their classes if they feel moderately ill, something they would not have done in a face-to-face situation.

Weaver also said all of the safety mechanisms – temperature checks, face masks, social distancing and hand washing – would hopefully reduce the chances of teachers catching any disease.

“Hopefully is the key word,” said Weaver.

At past meetings, board members also have inquired about a possible shortage of bus drivers. McDaris said some contingency plans, which include having some coaches and office personnel driving, have been developed to cover all bus routes.

“We’re going to make sure that we cover the routes,” he said.

He added that with about one-third of students choosing the online option, there would be fewer students riding buses.

McDaris said the Dogwood Trust has provided money to schools in the region to purchase temperature-taking kiosks. The kiosks, which cost approximately $2,300 each, can accurately take temperatures every three seconds.

He said Dogwood Trust is providing eight of the kiosks at no cost, and the school system is going to purchase another four. Every school will have one kiosk and Brevard High, due to its larger population, will have two. There also will be kiosks at the bus garage and central office.

“That will be very, very helpful,” said McDaris.

He said the kiosks will be the property of the school system and would also help screen students, teachers and visitors with other infectious diseases, such as the flu.

Wellborn asked if all school administrators were “on board” with enforcing the requirement for masks.

“They are on board,” said McDaris. “We’re taking this very seriously. It is an expectation that all of our staff, including volunteers, wear facemasks. It is also an expectation of our students.”

He said the idea that requiring people to wear masks is an infringement on personal liberties “does not apply here.”

“We will not accept that because the reality is public health trumps that,” said McDaris.

He said those who refuse to wear masks would face disciplinary action and not be allowed in the school buildings.

He said the only exception would be for those who provide a diagnosis from their health care provider exempting them due to a medical condition.

McCoy asked how standardized tests would be administered.

Since there were no standardized tests at the end of last year, fourth graders will be given a reading diagnostic test during the first few weeks of school to see if they need remediation, but those tests will be given on iStation, which can be done at home or in school.

McDaris said that this time, neither the state nor federal government has waived end-of-course testing.

If waivers are not granted, McDaris said, “We will have to bring them back in to do face-to-face testing.”

In regard to feeding students, he said the school system is working on how to deliver or have meals picked up by students who are learning remotely.

“That’s not finalized yet, but it highlights the fact that we’re trying to cover as many bases as possible,” said McDaris.

McDaris said the school also has been cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing the schools.

While private individuals may have had some difficulty obtaining certain supplies in the past few months, he said the school system deals directly with vendors and has been able to get the supplies they need.

The next meeting of the school board will be Monday, Aug. 17.


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