Scared and skeptical, parents push back as Durham moves toward in-person classes

Posted February 19, 2021 5:58 p.m. EST
Updated February 22, 2021 12:10 p.m. EST

— Reaction is growing to the Durham school board’s decision to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction.

The district initially planned to remain remote all-year but is now switching gears.

Time is now counting down for school administrators to get buildings ready to welcome students back. In an emergency meeting on Thursday, the school board set March 15 as the first day for elementary students. That’s only 23 calendar days away.

“I just want to issue an apology from yesterday because we couldn’t have public comment for an emergency meeting. It’s policy," said Alexandra Valladares, a school board member. "I want the community to know we hear you and we see you."

“A lot of us parents are feeling unheard. We’re feeling like we’re not being taken into consideration," said Markeytta Witherspoon.

Witherspoon has a daughter in middle school who is now scheduled to return in April.

“They’re giving us the very general layout of the precautions they’re going to take. So it’s a lot of unanswered questions right now. I am scared and skeptical at the same time," she said.

DPS leaders said legislation sitting on the governor’s desk has forced their hand. The measure would require schools to provide in-person instruction during the pandemic to all students who want it.

Spokesman Chip Sudderth said he is confident in the guidelines in place.

“We’re not opening up all of our schools at full capacity. We’re having our middle and high school students coming in on a rotating basis," he said.

The plan for now is to have kindergarten through fifth-grade students learn remotely one day a week. Students in grades six through 12 will be assigned to one of three cohorts; each will attend school two days per week face-to-face.

“They say that we’re going to practice 6 feet distancing. How?’ asked Witherspoon.

“As we’re seeing right now, a substantial number of families are choosing to stick with remote instruction. That will help us maintain social distancing," said Sudderth.

"Are we going to sit and wait until the conditions are perfect everywhere? We have to create those conditions," said Valladares.

Valladares said the board decision came with careful consideration, research, engagement and recommendations from a task force.

"Plan B is something that goes all the way back to last year," she said. That's enough time to get the personal protective equipment, signage and other resources in place and have even tested operations out at learning centers.

Teachers will be able to ask for accommodations based on their health conditions. Parents have until Feb. 24 to fill out an online form if they prefer to keep their children out of the classroom.

Timeline for the return of teachers and students:

Elementary schools:
•March 8: Teachers return
•March 15: First day for students and before/aftercare begins

Middle and high schools:
•March 24: Teachers return
•April 8: First day for students in Cohort A

Specialty high schools:
•March 1: Teachers return
•March 18: First day for students in Cohort A

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