After nearly seven months of complete virtual instruction under the state’s Plan C, Durham Public Schools teachers and administrators are making every effort to safely prepare classrooms for hybrid in-person teaching on a tight deadline.
Durham Public Schools’ instruction was originally supposed to remain virtual throughout the rest of the school year. However, the board of education decided during their March 2 meeting for a return to hybrid in-person teaching.
"Strategically, staying in Plan C is not realistic anymore," wrote Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators, in a social media post. "The COVID infection rate is less than 5% in Durham County. The majority of the school districts in NC are on either Plan A or Plan B ... DAE will be asking that all school buildings reopen on April 8 to allow enough time for as many DPS staff to get fully vaccinated and to make sure plans are in place for a smoother reopening."
Nine days later, Governor Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 220 on March 11, requiring school districts to offer in-person instruction to K-12 students. This decision came after Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 37 Feb. 26, arguing that it did not observe public safety guidelines surrounding social distancing. The Senate failed to override the veto on March 1.
Elementary school students in Durham Public Schools returned to schools on March 15, and middle and high school students will begin returning April 8. Families can still choose to remain learning virtually.
For Durham Public School educators and administrators, this was short notice to begin preparing their schools for students.
“The board basically said, ‘Well, whether [Senate Bill 37] happens or not, y’all are going back to school, so saddle up your ponies and go,’” said Annie Harrison, a teacher at Forest View Elementary School in Durham.
Harrison said that every school in the DPS system is allowed to make its own plan for in-person instruction—the only guideline was that in-person instruction must be offered four days a week.
Harrison began teaching in-person last week with a split classroom: A portion of her students were in the classroom and a portion were on Zoom. She said that the elementary school teachers got better with this new medium quickly, adapting in ways like using wireless microphones so students on Zoom can hear her better.
Harrison has signals she uses with her students to let them know when she’s answering a question in the classroom or on Zoom. She puts a toy dinosaur in front of the camera to let students on Zoom know she’s answering a question in the classroom.
“It feels a little bit like being a game show host. You’re talking to the studio audience, but you’re also talking to the folks at home,” she said.
She noted that the hybrid learning model students have told her that “this isn’t how school used to be.” The model has also split up friend groups.
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Harrison was still very thrilled to see her students, and she wanted very badly to hug them.
“We have been through so much together. It's like being soldiers in the same war. But you know, of course, we can't hug.”
Harrison also wanted to denounce the stereotype that teachers are “chickens” and do not want to go back to work. She said that teachers want to return in-person, but safely. Many would have preferred to wait a few more weeks and be fully vaccinated before returning to school.
She expressed that teachers have been working hard all year, and she’s never worked this hard before.
“This whole week has just been redline stress. And it’s being managed, I think exceptionally well, at our school. But there are still things that change three or four times a day. Buses, for example, are still a hot mess,” she said.
Neal Middle School Principal Michael Fuga has been rigorously preparing for Neal’s reopening. Over the past couple weeks, Fuga has visited schools in Chatham, Granville and Wake counties to see how each county is preparing their schools for in-person instruction.
He has held countless meetings with Neal staff and his leadership team. He also met individually with 35 staff members who expressed concerns about reopening.
“The teachers are the ones that are going to be in the classrooms with these kids. We can't return in person and provide a quality education unless the teachers feel safe,” he said.
Despite the many challenges associated with reopening, Fuga expressed its benefits for Neal students. One hundred percent of Neal’s student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch, he said, and many of its families do not have access to help their children grow academically outside of Zoom. Hybrid instruction, he said, is “the best we can do.”
Brogden Middle School Principal Anthony White is serving his first year as principal. This year has been a “very different experience” for him, he said, and he is excited about reopening and building stronger relationships with students from being in-person.
“We’re ready for the kids to come back. It’s been a tough year on everyone. And I’m happy to be seemingly on the other side of things while we’re returning to some sense of normalcy,” White said.
Brogden has a planning committee that consists of administrators, counselors, instructional coaches, and teachers who have been discussing reopening procedures over the last month.
“It’s very, very important to have teachers’ input in these decision making processes,” White said.
White calls himself and his principal colleagues the “pandemic principals.” There is no blueprint for being a principal during a pandemic, he said, but he thankful to be a part of such a strong school community.
“I'm thankful for my teachers, I'm thankful for my students, and their parents, because they have made this transition so smooth for me. Everyone has been willing to offer a helping hand,” he said.