Hickory Public Schools Board of Education met Wednesday night to discuss how their schools would move forward this semester.
“We have people who work for us and with us that have been and continue to be extremely sick,” said HPS Superintendent Robbie Adell during the meeting. “I ask that the board consider two options tonight for discussion: the first would be not to change anything and continue doing what we're doing, or two, allow the in-person instruction to pause for two weeks until the 19th of January.”
The board ultimately decided that K-3 will continue to transition to Plan A, which began on Jan. 5. This means all K-3 students will do in-person learning on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday will be a remote learning day.
In the original plan, fourth- and fifth-graders were to transition to Plan A beginning on Jan. 19. The board voted to not continue this plan, and that all fourth- and fifth-grade students will continue on Plan B until further notice. Students in grades 6-12 will also remain on Plan B, a hybrid plan of in-class instruction and remote learning.
Angela Simmons, HPS Director of Student Services, gave the board an update on COVID-19 data within the system. Since the beginning of school in August, HPS has tracked a total of 572 students and 265 staff members.
This means school staff have kept track of students and employees who have been exposed to the virus in any setting, have experienced symptoms, or whose family members have experienced symptoms. Of those tracked, 100 students and 44 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since August.
During the meeting, board members were given copies of public comments that were submitted online regarding in-person learning. “Just for the record, it was overwhelmingly pro continue in-person instruction from parents,” Adell said to the board. “Most of our teachers asked for some consideration for in-person learning to pause for two weeks until the 19th of January.”
He continued, saying educators and other staff asked for in-person learning to pause based on the high number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county along with increased community spread.
“I think both arguments — from the parents' perspective of keeping kids in school and the position of the teachers and school staff — are valid,” said Adell. “But there is something to be said about not being able to do your best when you are fearful. I think that's where we are right now with the majority of our staff members.”
Board member and Vice Chair Ittiely Carson expressed concern over students returning to in-person learning, and asked if the school system has had any staff or students die from COVID-19.
“I’m not aware of any students that have died, but I am aware that we have experienced the death of an employee,” Adell said during the meeting. The employee was involved with in-person learning.
Adell said the employee had tested positive over the holiday break. He added that he is not aware of any transmission of the virus directly from any Hickory schools facility. The school system would not release any other information about the employee due to family privacy concerns.
“(The death of a staff member) was a major fear starting this journey, traveling this road,” Carson said. She made a motion during the meeting to suspend all in-person learning until at least Jan. 19. It did not pass.
Board member James Brinkley was in favor of suspending in-person learning as well, but for four weeks instead of two. "It seems like every call we're getting in the county is COVID-related,” he said during the meeting. He is the fire chief with the Long View Fire Department.
“An emergency field hospital is being put in Lenoir. The hospitals are filling up,” he continued. “The truth of the matter is that you can't work from a casket. A teacher can't teach from a casket.”
Board members also expressed their desire to see more transparency with COVID-19 data from the school system. The board unanimously passed a motion that would allow Hickory schools to create a COVID-19 dashboard for their website.
Beverly Snowden, Hickory Public Schools Director of Communications, said a team is working on the dashboard, which will be located on the school system's website homepage under COVID Updates in the top menu. It will be updated weekly and should be online by the end of next week.
Emily Willis is a general assignment and education reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.