The Hyde County Board of Education meets virtually. Steve Basnight is the school superintendent, Julio Morales is the district information officer and Ken Chillcoat is the district financial officer.

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By Richard Taylor

The Hyde County Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to continue virtual learning through at least the end of the current semester in mid-January.

Superintendent Steve Basnight detailed seven options during a two-hour work session, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour board meeting.

Options ranged from a combination of face-to-face and virtual classroom instruction (N.C. Plan B), to continuation of the current remote learning (state Plan C).

Using 85 detailed PowerPoint slides during the Zoom/Facebook meetings, Basnight explained the myriad of stringent state and local requirements for keeping students and staff safe from the coronavirus when the district eventually returns to in-person learning.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” he said. “It’s like the weight of a piano on my shoulders.”

Some of Basnight’s slides showed school employees’ preferences for returning to in-person.

Of the 82 responses to the question of returning to in-person learning after the first nine weeks, 57% said no to returning and 43% said yes.

As to the question of whether staff would like to return to in-person instruction if the district remains on Plan C, 18% preferred to come back after Thanksgiving; 28% preferred after Christmas; 36% preferred to come back at the beginning of the second semester; and 13% (those with high risk factors) preferred not to come back to in-person instruction at all.

Some staff mentioned that employees leaving for holiday trips could possibly bring COVID-19 back with them. Twenty-four Ocracoke staffers responded to the survey.

Angela Todd, Ocracoke’s board member and mother of an eighth grader, cited students’ safety as she pleaded passionately to continue online instruction, before introducing a motion to continue virtually.

One poignant point in the13 emails she received, was the question, “How many lives are acceptable to lose? If that number is five, put it in your plans.”

“For me, that number is zero,” Todd said. “Students have worked hard on Ocracoke. They have found a rhythm, but we do not physically have a building to put children in now. Nothing’s ready at Ocracoke School.”

She noted that Ocracoke teachers have jumped through hoops for over a year.

“I think it would be terribly unfortunate to ask them to jump through another hoop to try to make in-person school work when it’s going to make everything immensely more difficult for everyone,” Todd said.

Basnight said that distance learning has been around for a long time.

“It works if you do it right and if you do it well,” Basnight said. “Our teachers have done a phenomenal job. They have worked themselves to the bone to make this work.”

Board member Aleta Cox agreed with Todd.

“I think we ought to stay with what we’ve doing now because the teachers have become comfortable with it,” she said.

Board member Lindsey Mooney was at first hesitant to support the continuation of virtual learning, but eventually went along with other board members to fully support continuing with Plan C.

“The logical side of me says that at some time you’ve got to make a move (towards in-person learning),” he said. “The one thing that discourages me from voting for face-to-face is that Ocracoke School is not set up and ready to go. I know they’re struggling and I’m really sympathetic to that.”

Vice-chair Thomas Whitaker stressed keeping students safe.

“We’ve all got to play a part in this,” he said. “We can do it, but at this stage, I cannot move forward. We have to take this one step at a time.”

Chair Randy Etheridge asked if anything could be done about internet problems on the mainland.

Basnight said he just received a text message from Riverstreet Networks saying that by the end of the month, we would begin to have better Internet access for (mainland) Hyde and students in Engelhard.

Basnight said the school system had just received 90 wireless hot spots from the state, which will greatly help connections in problem areas. Internet access on Ocracoke is not a major problem, except for occasional freezes due to traffic congestion.

Etheridge noted that there are so many variables now and that Hyde can learn from other districts as they move forward while Hyde stays virtual.

“We can benefit from their mistakes and their successes,” he said. “By the start of second semester, we will be more prepared to move forward.”

Basnight praised the 21st Century afterschool program, which can pick up where classroom teachers leave off. The enrichment portion of 21st Century program is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the highly praised tutoring portion continues in the afternoons.

The board also voted to allow in-vehicle driver’s education to continue as long as a parent or other adult was in the car with the instructor and student driver. All must wear masks, and cars must be disinfected after each use.

The board decided to discontinue fall volleyball and basketball practices after Todd said, “I don’t love the idea of practices. There’s too much shared contact, too much close contact, too much huffing and puffing. I really would like to think of a way for athletics to happen, but I just can’t justify it.”

Allowing athletic group practices was tabled until the next meeting.

In the northeast region, Hyde joined Hertford and Washington counties voting to remain on Plan C, while Bertie, Gates and Tyrrell counties will decide later this month. Dare County will use Plan B, a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

In recognition of October as National Principal’s Month, Basnight said, “We have three outstanding principals in our schools that are doing phenomenal jobs. Not one of them went to school to learn what they’re doing right now.

“They’re creating it on the fly and they’re doing a heck of a job at it. I really appreciate that they’re going out where no one’s been before and figuring out how to do it. They are going above and beyond. I just wanted to recognize them.”

In addition to Leslie Cole for Ocracoke School, the other Hyde County school principals are Alan Phillip Hagen, Mattamuskeet Early College, and Allison Etheridge, Mattamuskeet Elementary.

Numerous comments were posted to Facebook during the meetings.

Cole posted, “This was a difficult decision made during a difficult time” on the school’s Facebook page Wednesday. She thanked teachers for navigating this year with lots of dedication and perseverance. She thanked parents for their grace and patience and students for putting in so much effort.

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