NEWLAND — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, school administrators, teachers and faculty have been struggling to find the best path forward for students.
While most agree that face-to-face learning is ideal for students, the conditions to keep students safe and healthy at school during the more than 18 months of COVID-19 have required challenging decision making from the local health departments, state government and individual boards of education.
According to the Avery County Board of Education Chairman John Greene, the decisions regarding masking and other COVID-19 protocols in schools have been left to individual county boards of education by the state government.
“I think local control is best for most things, because just like parents know what is best for their children, we know our county better than Raleigh,” Greene said.
Greene shared that the board of education continues to support that parents know their children best and should have the power to make decisions about their kids’ health.
Currently, there is no state-government ordered mandate for face coverings in schools, and Greene said that making a decision in regard to masks has been challenging for the Avery BOE. Greene noted that the board has had robust discussions regarding COVID-19 policies for Avery’s schools, and that the board members do not always unanimously agree on every issue it addresses.
“We have a strong tradition of mutual respect and belief in voting your conscience,” Greene said.
While the board may not always unanimously agree when facing an issue or topic, Greene stressed that the board members always are respectful of one another’s opinion and work with solidarity on a variety of matters the board faces.
In regard to decisions and reactions to the ever-evolving COVID-19 issue, Greene explained that outside of the discussions and research conducted by the board of education’s five-member group and ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman, the board also takes into consideration input from the Avery County Health Department, perspectives shared from teachers, administrators and families, and more.
“We strongly, as does the state, recommend that people wear masks,” Greene said, adding that ACS is following the Avery County Health Department and state guidelines for schools, including conducting contact tracing, thorough sanitizing and recommending masks.
Dennis Brown, executive director of human resources for Avery County Schools, said that the school system conducts deep cleanings of school facilities twice weekly, as well as daily, consistent surface sanitizing.
Although these measures are serving to protect students, Greene and Brown responded to concerns over the accessibility to education for immunocompromised students. Brown said that students in grades 9 to 12 still have access to the NC virtual school, but that this option does not extend to everyone.
“What we saw in K-8 was that it was a tremendous struggle to provide any quality instruction in a virtual environment,” Brown said, noting that face-to-face learning is ideal and that issues ranging from staffing to internet access in homes have been barriers to the remote learning process.
Many counties have reported struggling with having enough substitute teachers and bus drivers this school year, and while Brown said the reserves are low, he said that Avery County Schools is keeping pace. This week, he said, the county is conducting training to hire additional substitute teachers.
Ultimately, Greene said, the board of education will continue to evaluate policies regarding COVID-19 each month at its meetings. Currently, Greene and Brown stated there is no brightline, such as a specific number of positive cases, for when the board of education would feel they need to put a mask mandate in place, noting that the process will continue to be data-driven and that the board will monitor the situation closely as the school year continues.
Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member with Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.