By Richard Taylor
Upholding their decision from earlier this month, the Hyde County Board of Education voted unanimously at Tuesday’s special meeting to keep Ocracoke students in a hybrid remote learning plan through Jan. 15.
Virtual school continues as is and the board will allow limited (1 to 5 pupils) in-person tutoring groups to begin on the island soon.
Swayed by heavy pressure from mainland parents, the board voted 3-2 to return Mattamuskeet’s three schools to staggered in-person instruction under a modified Plan B design beginning Nov. 3.
Mattamuskeet Elementary will return to in-person on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule with other mainland schools following soon after. All schools will remain virtual on other days.
The board also voted 4-1 to make Oct. 28 and 30 mainland teacher workdays to help Mattamuskeet staff prepare for in-person learning.
In a mid-October Ocracoke School staff survey, 67% of elementary and middle school personnel preferred not to proceed with in-person instruction for now, while 100% of high school and multiple-grade level staff preferred not to proceed in-person at all.
Board Member Lindsey Mooney said he had received emails from several Ocracoke parents who were not satisfied with how their kids were progressing in remote learning.
“The parents know the students best and they need to get in touch with (Ocracoke Principal Leslie) Cole,” he said.
“If Ocracoke wants to stay virtual, I’d like to give them what they want,” said Board Chair Randy Etheridge. “I really would like to separate the Ocracoke and mainland schools.”
The board agreed to let Superintendent Stephen Basnight and Cole work out the details for Ocracoke’s transition to hybrid in-person learning and provide an update at the board’s Nov. 10 meeting.
The overwhelming sentiment among the numerous mainland parents who spoke during the three-hour-plus online meeting was to open the schools despite the dangers of COVID-19.
“My son says he needs a teacher,” said James Topping. “Virtual is not working for him. You need to give us a Plan B. We need to have a choice.”
“This has gone on too long,” said Bridget Melvin. “I’m not sure how the board came up with that (previous) decision. This one decision has ruined my kid’s education.”
Mooney questioned why the staff is so resistant to going back to face-to-face learning.
Considering all the infrastructure problems still unresolved from Hurricane Dorian, Ocracoke board member Angela Todd urged for the island to remain virtual to which board member Thomas Whitaker agreed.
Todd emphatically defended the board’s Oct. 6 decision to stay virtual.
“I’m not saying I’m not for in-person,” she said. “Every person I know is for in-person, but we have to be reasonable. We can’t risk people’s lives.”
She said she understands that people want “normal.”
“What parent is going to step up to sanitize the bathroom?” she asked. “Everybody is worried about their own family. I get that. I understand people want normal. What we can do is address the normal we have created.”
Basnight said there would be challenges for returning to in-person instruction in Ocracoke’s new modular classrooms, which have no furniture yet, and that reconstruction of the elementary building’s first floor and the ongoing demolition of other campus buildings pose problems.
A $17,400 contract was just awarded for drywall installation on the first floor of the elementary building and a $139,420 flood-proofing contract for the gym is also in the works.
The board also approved spending $31,511 for tablet-like devices to monitor students’ temperatures and mask wearing at the system’s nine buildings.
Ocracoke ninth grader Maren Donlon, a student athlete, said the local 11 to 17 age group was experiencing anxiety and separation.
“This is where sports can come in and reduce body weight and fight depression,” she said. “Many students who play sports do better in school.”
At Todd’s urging, the board voted to allow only individual student workouts on the island, while allowing team workouts on the mainland beginning in November.
Basnight noted that the state has asked local governments to increase restrictions to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
He said the county’s positive COVID-19 numbers spiked within two weeks after the board voted to go with Plan C (all remote) in August.
“Since our Oct. 6 meeting, the same thing has happened,” he said.
Hyde Health Director Luana Gibbs said in a recent press release that although Hyde had a spike in COVID-19 cases, those were mostly in the congregate living places of the Hyde Correctional Institute and the Cross Creek nursing home, but those outbreaks have quelled.
Basnight said that the wearing of face coverings is the single most significant deterrent against COVID-19.
“If 95 to 99 % of staff and students wear masks, it significantly reduces the chances of transmission,” he said.