Will Atherton

Orange County Board of Education member Will Atherton discusses the district's plans for reopening schools in the fall.

Editor's Note: The interview with Will Atherton for this story was conducted prior to the Orange County Board of Education naming a new chair.

The Orange County Board of Education, along with Orange County Schools faculty and staff, and input from the community, has put forth an outline of possible choices and manipulations of the state’s three potential plans for reopening public schools in the fall.

But as Will Atherton, chair of the BOE is quick to point out, there are no easy choices and none of the plans will please everyone.

“All of these and more are options that the staff is looking into for more details,” Atherton said. “There are no good options. None of these are going to be where people say, “I love Option C, or I love Option B.”

More than a month ago, the state presented a proposal that outlined three possible plans for schools to reopen, based on North Carolina’s COVID-19 situation. On July 1, Gov. Roy Cooper was supposed to announce which of the three plans the state’s public schools would follow. However, the infection numbers in North Carolina has dramatically risen, and the governor delayed making an announcement. While the delay provides more time for sorting out details for the fall, many of the school systems remain in limbo.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we — Orange County Schools — have mandates from the state,” Atherton said. “We don’t have all the flexibility like people might think. We can’t just say ‘we’re gonna do this.’ If it’s a state law or the governor has signed it, we can’t do arbitrary things. We have a lot of requirements that come down from the state. The state gave us three potential openings the governor is considering: Plan A is minimal social distancing, using their definition. Now, us as a district can go in and say we’re going to do additional safeguards. Even though we’ve been told we don’t have to do social distancing, or do anything unique, we can implement more than that. Plan B is moderate social distancing. This is where they say you can’t have greater than 50 percent capacity in your building. Whatever your buildings says, you have to abide by 50 percent of that number, which means you can’t have all the students in the building. That’s a challenge.”

While much of the focus of bringing students back to school, for good reason, focuses on the school buildings, transportation creates its own set of daunting challenges. 

“Let’s just use, for example, Cameron Park Elementary,” Atherton continued. “Today, they have six buses. If we do Plan B, we’ll need 27 buses just for Cameron Park. It’s not realistic. We could not afford it. One, you couldn’t buy the number of buses to get through this, and two, we wouldn’t have the drivers. There are so many financial reasons we can’t do it.”

The state’s Plan B also places high demand for protective personal equipment, or PPE. 

“We have to have temporary masks that you can hand out,” Atherton said. “The estimates we have for that is about $81,000 per month. Just for PPE in our schools. That’s if you can get it. Our PPE was backordered and we still haven’t gotten it in, but the state is delivering a two-month supply for all schools. That’s just too much. 

“There are lots of significant issues with Plan B,” he continued. “Many of them are financial. We’re going to have to think outside the box to figure out what it will look like if Plan B is what comes down from the state. How does that work? How do families engage and prepare? Plan B has lots of challenges.”

That leaves Plan C, which — as Atherton explained — will not be the same as what students, parents and teachers experienced much of the second half of the last school year. 

“Remote learning was all about reviewing content. Now we need to figure out how we’re going to introduce new content and provide support. The year would start off with review and then new content. We’ve got to have everything ready, everything prepared. The BOE just approved a technology update that would give our K-2nd grade electronic devices so they could do remote learning, which still has to go to the county to be approved, of course. But, that’s required now because our K-2nd grade didn’t have devices. Under Plan C, you need those devices that those students can use and also have access points for people who don’t have Internet. There are still some that we’ll have to accommodate who don’t have cell signal and they don’t have any capability of local Internet. That’s where we’re looking at buses that could be retrofitted to provide cell signals,” Atherton said. 

Another of the concerns the school board and Orange County Schools will be seeking guidance for is what to do if there is a coronavirus case or an outbreak at a school. Would the school immediately shut down and switch to remote learning for a determined length of time? 

“We don’t want an outbreak that could stretch across multiple families,” Atherton said. “It’s the main reason we were one of the first schools systems in the state to close.” 

Much of the district’s proposal involves suggested manipulations and the potential challenges of reopening the schools. One plan would span grade levels, which would allow classes from entire grades — for example, 1st and 3rd grade — on certain days, while other entire grades would attend on different days in different classrooms. Other discussions have involved not opening high school or middle school and move the elementary levels to the middle schools or high schools. 

“There are many problems with that, too, not that we can’t overcome them, but the furniture is too large for these kids,” Atherton said. “Where are we going to get the staff that needs to be there? Now you need double the staff to accommodate that.” 

There is also a proposal involving alternating days, where some students come on Monday, the others come on Tuesday. There could also be alternating weeks. 

“We’re trying to make sure we get as much feedback from parents and faculty and staff on what can we do, and which of these options makes sense,” Atherton said. “We have a retreat on Tuesday to try to have more thoughtful discussions on this and the finances. Part of that retreat is to talk about the finances and what we can do because we know we’re not going to have what we need to do everything. And making sure we’re not spending money we shouldn’t.”

Atherton said he and the rest of the school board have heard concerns from many families who say they would be unable or would be greatly challenged by any implementation of remote learning. Parents or guardians who are first responders or who are paid for hourly work have made clear the reasons they’re hoping for schools to reopen.

But there are also a number of families who are not confident in the safety of returning their children to school, regardless of the plan that is announced by the governor.  

“One of the things we’re looking at is a virtual classroom,” Atherton said. “It is not approved. It’s a virtual program that we’re looking at. This would allow a family that is not comfortable with returning their child to be 100 percent out of the school. Some kids thrived with the virtual learning. Especially in high school. The students and families could continue to be a part of the school. If you’re a student at, for example, Efland Cheeks, your virtual program would be through Efland Cheeks. Parents could still be a part of the PTA, and students could still be a part of the school programs. How does all of this work? We have to figure it out, but that is one of the things that is being looked at. It will give some families another option. Many people have said they would like a virtual option. Several districts in N.C. are looking at programs that allow for the class to be remote. There would be a platform for it.” 

The downside of the virtual program is caps may have to be placed on them, based on cost. The district could have to identify a percentage of students that could use the virtual classroom. A lottery process is one possibility.

“Some of the companies that offer the virtual classroom platforms are going to be letting Orange County Schools try them out to see if they would work for us and would be worth pursuing,” he said.

Atherton said the school board and district are still seeking input and researching ideas, including watching how schools in other countries — where the COVID-19 spread was brought under control — are planning to reopen.

“They’re reallocating places like gyms and cafeterias to be class work spaces,” he said. “One idea is to not have students eating in the cafeterias. The students could be provided with prepared lunches which are eaten in their classrooms.”

Students not leaving the classroom is another change that could be implemented. If there are specials, like art or music, the specials teacher would go to each classroom instead of having each class physically leave one room to go to another room.

Atherton, who has said he will not seek to serve as Chair of the Board of Education when his term is up, said he hopes the Orange County Community understands the difficulty of the decision that will have to be made in the coming days. 

“North Carolina’s numbers are not going the right way,” he said. “It’s up to Gov. Cooper to decide what the schools can do, but I’d say Plan A is just completely unrealistic at this time. It’s just going to be a really difficult year, and until we get a cure or some treatment for it, it’s going to continue to be there.”