Watauga County Schools face-to-face for rest of school year

Jake Markland , News Editor

Middle and high school students are going back to in-person learning four days a week starting April 12. 

In a special meeting March 15, the Watauga County Board of Education voted 5-0 to send students in Watauga County Schools back to classrooms. 

Once students return from their spring break, they will have the option to go to school on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will continue to be used as cleaning days. 

Watauga County Schools instructed virtually from March 2020 to the middle of the fall semester last year; however, K-5 students have been in person four days a week since March 22

Since mid-October, WCS has operated on a hybrid schedule with cohorts. One cohort attended in-person school on Mondays and Tuesdays and another on Thursdays and Fridays. 

Gary Childers, chairman of the Board of Education, said teachers and staff will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 when students return on April 12. 

Now, under Plan A, students are asked not to come to school if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, wear masks inside and social distance as much as possible. 

“While there is no specific social distancing requirement under Plan A, we still want to make sure that we provide enough distance between students, particularly during transition and throughout the school day,” said Scott Elliot, superintendent of WCS, in a video released on its YouTube channel. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines March 19 and announced only 3 feet of social distancing is necessary in schools. 

Gov. Roy Cooper announced lifted restrictions beginning Friday as COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have been decreasing. In public, however, masks and 6 feet of social distancing are still required. 

Anne Ward, a parent of two children at Watauga High School, said she wants to know how the district will prepare students for “this abrupt shift in safety messaging.”

“Safely distancing students in the classroom will not be possible when everyone returns after spring break,” Ward said. “That is a concern.”

Jeanne Mercer-Ballard, who has two children in Watauga County Schools, said she is conflicted. She said she wants to follow the science but also knows her children will thrive in a social, in-person learning environment. 

Another parent, Chrystal Dean, said she is ready for her daughter to be back in school and is confident that her daughter’s middle school and other Watauga County Schools will operate safely. 

She wants to see her friends and be able to communicate with her teachers face to face each school day,” Dean said. 

All of the parents praised the work teachers have put in to ensure an education for students throughout the pandemic. 

One Watauga High School student, Bella Vivona, petitioned her school to keep the hybrid format, saying social distancing will be harder with more students in the building. 

The petition has over 500 signatures. Comments on it share concerns about going to school with “anti-maskers,” mental health, social distancing feasibility and scheduling conflicts. 

Scott Elliot, superintendent of WCS, said the school system has had 109 employees and 232 students test positive for COVID-19 since the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Elliot said most cases are the result of out of school activities, saying there has been fewer than five cases of transmission within the school.