NEWLAND — Despite already having its 2020-2021 school calendar firmly in place, Avery County Schools must now approve a new calendar for the upcoming school year due to changes made by the North Carolina Legislature.
According to House Bill 1035 or Education Omnibus/COVID-19, the bill provides relief to public schools experiencing extraordinary circumstances due to COVID-19. The bill also implements numerous provisions and waivers that affect school operations, including a rule that allows schools to begin their school year as early as Aug. 17, 2020.
Additionally, Senate Bill 704 has also included changes in the laws related to school calendars for public school systems.
The new rules close the door on calendar exceptions, such as the innovative calendar that ACS had been taking advantage of, which would have allowed the school system to begin its school year on August 6.
In a memo sent to school administration on May 15, Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman clarified the school system’s position on its upcoming approval of a new school-year calendar.
“After careful review and recommendations from our legal counsel, we will not be pursuing the ‘45/15 Year-Round’ calendar at this time. We will be presenting the revised ‘traditional’ calendar for consideration at the upcoming board meeting in hopes of moving forward with planning for the 2020-2021 academic year. On behalf of the Avery County Board of Education and administration, thank you for your patience and feedback as we reviewed and considered all available options for our 2020-2021 calendar,” Brigman said.
Adoption of the year-round calendar would have forced the school system to include 13 more days of vacation time into the school year’s intersessions in order to comply with the new laws, an option administration did not feel was in the best interest of students and staff during this time.
During a BOE meeting on Tuesday, May 12, board members considered the options in front of them at that time.
The district’s first option is a traditional calendar with August 17 as the start date. School would run one semester and conclude on Christmas, and the academic year would end on May 26. ACS had previously operated on a traditional calendar before the innovative calendar was adopted.
A second option was year-round calendar with each nine-week grading period, followed by a two-week break. The school year would begin on July 27, 10 days prior to ACS’s original start date of Aug. 6. After the first two-week break, students would return for nine weeks, then have their second break around Christmas. Students would return with two remote learning days on Jan. 4 and 5, 2021, and finish the third nine weeks on March 5. After another two-week break, students would conclude the academic year on May 28. Students would receive nearly two months of summer break.
“Typically school calendars are decided in December, January and April, so you’ve kind of been thrown for a last-minute curve here in terms redirecting our calendars.” Brigman told the board.
Board member Kathey Aldridge voiced her support in favor of a traditional calendar, citing in part the need of parents would have to find child care as well as a need for a sense of structure.
“[A traditional calendar] gives us three more weeks if we do end up having issues in the county for that to go away. We also have the building of the high school. They can continue to work without children on the facility. I feel like the best way to go is to maintain as much stability for this coming school year as we can,” Aldridge said.
Patricia Edwards mentioned the lack of air conditioning in several schools as a point to consider since students would have school for three additional weeks during the summer.
Jaynes gave a short update related to air conditioning in three schools. Avery High School’s air conditioning system should be installed after the end of the school year. However, Jaynes said there is no plan in place to have it installed by the beginning of August.
Avery Middle has air conditioning installed on the third floor but none on the first and second floors. The middle school’s air conditioning system is included as a budget item for the county commissioners to consider. Jaynes said there should enough time by July to get the system ready.
Freedom Trail/Cranberry Elementary does have an air conditioning system, but at limited capacity. A new system is also a budget item for consideration, but the old system will have to first be uninstalled. Jaynes said he did not know if the system would be ready by the end of July.
“I do like the year-round calendar for a lot of reasons, and I like the traditional calendar too, but they were miserable last year [without air conditioning]. Avery Middle, Avery High and Cranberry were miserable until about mid September. I would just like some input from some of them,” Edwards said.
BOE member Jane Bumgarner said she would like to see the pros and cons of each calendar presented to students, parents and teachers, while also advocating for a Zoom meeting to be held amongst stakeholders in which questions could be asked, and the public would be able to view it.
“I like the year-round [calendar]. It’s good for our children, it’s good for our high school students, especially. It aligns a little better with Mayland [Community College]. It would almost guarantee that our children would have their testing done before Christmas. This other calendar, with our last day being the 22nd, which is also the last day, if we miss any [days], we’re going to be hard pressed to get testing done before Christmas,” Bumgarner said.
Board Chair John Greene shared similar sentiments about the need for the pros and cons of each calendar to be presented. Additionally, the board shared the need for camps, field trips, learning opportunities and accelerated programs to be implemented during the two-week breaks if a year-round calendar was to be adopted.
Steve Smith shared his concern about high school seniors being able to work during a shorter summer break, and mentioned that students had received excellent test scores when testing was being conducted in the second week of January in 2018, while schools were operating on a traditional calendar.
“The system is working. We have outstanding students. We have outstanding faculty. We need to think about that before we start making major changes,” Smith said.
Additionally, Jaynes gave an update on the construction process at AHS. Despite recent progress due to students not being on site, there are several coronavirus-related concerns that may further hinder the building process.
To comply with health regulations, Tommy Burleson, Avery County Director of Planning and Inspections, is requiring that any materials brought into the construction site must sit for a minimum of four days before they are moved. According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 can survive on hard surfaces for up to four days, even when exposed to the elements.
In addition, construction crews are experiencing difficulty accessing out-of-state workers. According to Jaynes, some of the the labor force currently under contract for the project come from states that include Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, all of which have hotspots of COVID-19. Insulated Concrete Forms and steel come from these same states, and there have been delays in regard to ordering and accessing materials.
The project is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving later in the year, with students being able to occupy the new wing by Christmas. The completion date has been pushed back several times, and potential delays also have school officials worried since the architect or contractors may be able to request additional funds due to conditions out of their control.
“We don’t want to put pressure to the extent that it affects the quality of the building,” Brigman said.
Lastly, ACS has named teachers of the year from each school of the district. Teachers recognized included Phoebe Fisher (Riverside Elementary), Kim Duncan (Avery Middle), Diana Love (Cranberry Middle), Molly Rhodes (Banner Elk Elementary) Brian Huskins (Crossnore Elementary), Marti Berry (Freedom Trail Elementary), Shariah Webb (Newland Elementary) and Shelby Barrier (Avery High School). A district Teacher of the Year will be announced following a final interview process.
“We commend each of these outstanding educators as being selected as the school-based Teacher of the Year. We wish them all the best as we go through the process tomorrow [May 13] of selecting our top candidate,” Dr. Brigman said.