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RSS board votes to send elementary students to in-person classes four days per week

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is moving ahead with plans to get elementary students back in the classroom four days per week by the end of March.

The RSS Board of Education on Monday approved a motion to send students back on March 29 by a unanimous vote, with the exception of board vice chair Alisha Byrd-Clark, who was absent from the meeting.

District administration presented options to the board for attendance options going forward, including remaining in plan B — with two days in person and three virtual, or beginning the transition of K-5 students to full-time in-person instruction. Even under the latter option, Wednesday will remain a remote day, and the schools would be sanitized.

Both options recommended returning all exceptional children program students and English language learner students, about 600 total, to school four days per week.

The administration’s plan for returning to plan A included a March 22 date, a month from Monday. Board member Dean Hunter made a motion to add an extra week before the start after taking board discussion into account.

Notably, member Brian Hightower expressed concern about immediately returning students to plan A after spring break and that the extra time will allow the first round of educators eligible for COVID-19 vaccines to get their second dose before the change.

The first round of vaccines for educators in Rowan County will be administered this weekend. Associate Superintendent Kelly Withers said 540 will be available for educators. The vaccines will be made available to school staff age 45 and older. Withers said those staff members were emailed with the option to sign up for their first dose.

Withers said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance advises not to use vaccines as a criteria for returning to school because they do not signal the immediate end of standard safety practices like wearing masks and social distancing.

Still, Superintendent Tony Watlington said the additional week would not be an issue.

“I think if there’s anybody that’s essential to our country, it’s teachers,” Hunter said, adding these decisions are not being made carelessly.

Hunter also noted the schools are a supervised environment. Students may not adhere to safety guidelines outside of them.

Chairman Kevin Jones said he feels the district has stayed ahead of the issue, but the majority of nearby districts is already moving toward plan A.

In plan A, students will be spread out as much as possible, but social distancing is not mandatory for students in classrooms.

Withers said the state has not released public schools from administering standardized year-end tests, noting some states are exploring the possibility of suspending those tests. The district still has to administer end-of-grade and end-of-course tests despite its special renewal status.

Watlington and Withers both noted the community is split on next steps, and there is no clean split on whether schools should be in plan A, B or C. Withers said elementary principals were still split when they met on Monday.

As of Monday, the district had a total of 21 positive cases including 13 students and eight employees with 348 students in quarantine and 40 employees.

The district’s COVID-19 numbers have been steadily improving since they peaked in early January.

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