When Durham Public School students resume school on Aug. 17, there will be no bus rides or hallway chats about summer. Instead, over 32,000 students will open Chromebooks and tune into online learning at home.
The first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year school will be online, Board of Education members voted unanimously on Thursday.
Schools statewide are free to open with a combination of online and in-person learning, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday. However, after teachers voiced concerns about the safety of returning to school during the pandemic, Durham will wait to bring students and over 5,000 staff to school buildings.
“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote in an online statement announcing reopening plans. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.
Although online instruction is the safest option, the district will face two major hurdles in teaching children at home: ensuring online access for all students and providing food. In the Durham school district, 64% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
To address the digital divide, Board of Education members purchased over 20,000 Chromebooks for students in May. Next, they must find ways to ensure all students and teachers have internet access through the distribution of hotspots.
School reopening plans have been evolving since fears about spreading COVID-19 illness abruptly shut Durham school building doors on March 13. All mandatory studies ended then too.
Cooper had asked school districts to develop three separate plans for re-entry following varying guidelines. Plan A allowed schools to reopen at regular capacity with minimal social distancing enforced. Plan B called for a limited reopening, where schools could operate at 50% capacity to enforce social distancing. Under Plan C, all instruction is online.
Durham’s Spark Reopening Task Force, a group of administrators and teachers working on plans to reopen schools, had recommended a very specific Plan B. If selected, it should include in-person instruction for kindergarten through eighth grade students, but online instructions for high school students, members said.
To ensure the space needed for social distancing, high schools would house some K-8 classes because they are bigger than elementary and middle schools. If students did not feel safe coming to school, they would have the option to stay home and enroll in Ignite Online Academy, the district’s new online school platform.
School board members approved this option unanimously on June 25.
Teachers were not given the same flexibility as students. Although some teachers would teach online at Ignite, not all could.
A survey the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) conducted through May and June drew responses from 34% of teachers. Among that group, 46.8% indicated that they would prefer to teach online.
The DAE, an educators’ advocacy organization, published a statement on July 13 asking for more funding to make in-person instruction safer so that educators would not have to choose between their health and their jobs.
“So far, the state and federal governments have not provided public schools with the human or capital resources we would need to ensure a safe and equitable return,” the statement says. “We are not prepared to bury our students or colleagues.”
DAE also hosted a virtual town hall discussion with Mubenga on Wednesday. Over 100 educators joined the Zoom meeting, with over 400 questions submitted ahead of time.
In the meeting, Mubenga’s message was clear. He and his staff were trying their best to meet teachers’ requests for a safe, in-person reopening. However, the district does not have the money it needs to properly do so, he said.
Although the district could provide sanitizer for each room, for example, there is not enough funding to hire additional nurses. Instead, schools would call nurses via a telehealth service if someone in the building needed medical attention.
During the town hall Arsai Adkins, assistant superintendent for human resources, announced 3,822 students had enrolled for Ignite, the online program. Adkins also reported that 331 teachers submitted accommodations requests, with 232 of those requests relating to personal or family underlying health conditions.
If schools reopen for in-person learning in October, students will have the ability to continue learning online if they choose. The date that could happen is not yet clear.
9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Durham public schools teachers, staff and students will remain apart at the start of the school year, just like they did last spring. File photo by Henry Haggart