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Bladen County Schools Successes and COVID-19 Challenges

The Bladen County Board of Education held a virtual meeting on Monday, September 14, at 6 p.m. Those in attendance were Chairperson Mr. Roger Carroll, Vice-chair, Mr. Glenn McKoy, Mr. Chris Clark, Mr. Berry Lewis, Mr. Gary Rhoda, Mr. Vinston Rozier, Mr. Cory Singletary, and Mr. Alan West.

Mr. Dennis Edwards was absent from the meeting.  There was no citizen participation.

The meeting fell on the evening of the first day of face to face learning for some Bladen County Schools students. Grades Prek, Kindergarten, First, Second, Third, and Fourth-grade started face-to-face learning with an A-B schedule. Students identified as A-day will attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays; students identified as B-day will attend school in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. All students participate in remote-only learning on Wednesdays.

“The numbers ended up being pretty good,” Dr. Robert Taylor, Bladen County Schools Superintendent, said.

According to Dr. Taylor, there were about 372 students in attendance for face-to-face learning with 85 bus riders. Dr. Taylor noted that more students are anticipated to take advantage of bus transportation after the first day of school.

Dr. Taylor was called upon to give a COVID-19 update. The schools have identifying markers for the virus, both inside and outside, Dr. Taylor reported.

“Our students are very aware of the requirements in terms of what they are supposed to do,” Dr. Taylor said.

Students must wear a mask, stand six feet apart and wash their hands for 20 seconds.

Bladen County Schools are continuing to follow the protocol and work with contact tracing, Dr. Taylor reported.  There will not be a need to use the middle schools and high schools for elementary school students to social distance, which was a concern earlier.

Moving on, Dr. Taylor addressed meals and buses.

“We continue to provide over 3,000 meals a day,” Dr. Taylor stated.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) extended the Summer Feeding Program until December 31, 2020 which is different from the school lunch program.

Dr. Taylor also reported the State approved the Schools to use transportation funds to support the child nutrition program.

Board member Mr. Alan West asked about the efforts to determine which students would be participating in virtual learning and which students would be willing to participate in face-to-face education.

Dr. Taylor answered, “We’ve given the parents ample time to make a decision whether they wanted their children to go to virtual learning or face-to-face. We informed the parents… we are not going to have them switch back and forth because that would affect the transportation. Once we have the solid number, we will make the same decision with the middle and high schools.”

West added a question, “How’s the virtual going with the schools?”

Dr. Taylor replied, there are a handful of students teachers are having trouble getting in contact with, but the teachers and guidance counselors are reaching out to them and their parents. We do know there are some situations where some students require support beyond this, and we are working diligently to provide that.

Dr. Atkinson joined the conversation, “Obviously, we have a few things we have to work through, but our teachers have embraced it well, and we have gotten some positive feedback from some parents.”

Virtual learning is different from remote learning at the very start of the Pandemic due to accountability changes, Dr. Atkinson reported. He added there might be some more internet hotspots soon for students to use. Students having internet issues are using printed out material for learning.

Board member, Mr. Rhoda, questioned the percentage of students going to school. Dr. Taylor did not have the percentage available. However, Dr. Taylor answered with the following attendance numbers:

Pre-K through 4th grade have a total of 1,447 students enrolled. The number of students attending face-to-face learning on the first day (with group A)totaled 372.

Dr. Taylor stated, “If we double those numbers, it will put our in-face numbers at 51% attendance.”

Mr. Rhoda also said, “I would like to know how hard it is for teachers to do both virtual and face to face teaching with students.”

It is a challenge, but Dr. Taylor explained, “Each school has the flexibility to make changes as necessary.”

Chrome books and printed packets for virtual learning have been distributed, according to Dr. Atkinson.

Board member, Mr. Singletary, asked, Can you address the underlying health issue teachers can opt for the virtual?

Dr. Taylor responded, “The HR Department and the Principals have made sure all teachers have received that information.”

“Can we put that in an email to all personnel?,” Singletary asked.

Dr. Taylor stated he would ensure a reminder email would be sent to all teachers about the virtual options for staff with underlying health issues.

Singletary suggested providing bus monitors on all buses to help prevent students from coming to school sick.

Dr. Taylor answered the cost for monitors on the bus would need to be considered because the State would not fund that cost.

“Parents have done a really good job not sending their students to school sick,” Dr. Taylor added.

Mr. Rhoda asked who does the testing at the school to ensure students are not sick.

Dr. Taylor explained the testing procedure, which is multi-leveled and involves a variety of staff members.

Rhoda asked how attendance was being recorded.

Dr. Taylor explained attendance has been problematic for all schools, but the State has held the Schools harmless for attendance, so the schools will still receive funding, although there are issues with attendance.

If a student has not been in attendance for two days, the teacher is to contact the parent and the principal, Dr. Atkinson added.

Next on the list, Dr. Taylor explained, Policy 7500 was updated and approved in March 2019 to include language concerning storm shelter pay. However, in the Fall Custom Policy Updates, an older version of the Policy was inadvertently included by the NCSBA legal policy team instead of the updated Policy.  The error was caught after the Fall Updates’ approval, and the policy manual has been corrected accordingly.

The board then heard the High School Athletics Update from Bladen County Coach Travis Pait.

Dr. Taylor, East Bladen High School Principal, Dr. Wray, Coach Evers
and Coach Pait met and decided Cross Country and Volleyball could start November 4. Coach Pait explained that teams should not be filled until face-to-face learning returns to be fair to all students.

According to Coach Pait’s report, Basketball will start in December with the first game on January 5 and Football will begin in February

Basketball and football are overlapping. Volleyball and Basketball are overlapping.

Coach Pait stated concerns about overlapping sports were sent to the State.

Board members Mr. Carroll and Mr. West both made statements about providing sports for the kids because they missed last year and are missing out again this year.

Coach Pait responded, “We are probably going back before the semester is over,” but he stated the issue, “It’s 50 miles across the district and we can not take students home right now. It’s not even an option at this point.”

Mr. West said, “It’s imperative that these kids are able to do something! We need to get these kids doing something besides sitting inside their bedrooms.”  He explained waiting until we are face-to-face before we are playing sports is not a good option.

Coach Pait responded October 5 is when we may have a better plan for the athletic schedules.

During the meeting, all board members in attendance approved the consent agenda items: the EC Contracts, Qualified Observers List, and the Lottery Funds Request / HVAC Elizabethtown Middle School.

After a closed session for personnel, student transfers, and legal issues, board member, Mr. Rozier, made a motion to approve Action item A brought before the board by Dr. Beatty with Bladen County Schools Human Resources Department. The board approved the action unanimously. Board member, Mr. West, made a motion to approve action item B brought before the board by Dr. Beatty with Bladen County Schools Human Resources Department. The board approved the action unanimously. Information regarding either action item A or B was disclosed to the public.

Dr. Taylor reported that board member Mr. Dennis Edwards attended the last Substance Abuse Task Force meeting. However, Mr. Edwards was not present to update the board about the task force meeting. The Board of Education is currently searching for Substance Abuse Committee members to attend the Bladen County Substance Abuse Task Force in November. Mr. Carroll stated anyone wanting to join the Substance Abuse Committee contact Mr. Kimbrie Esters at: keesters@bladen.k12.nc.us.

Mr. Carroll brought up for discussion, moving the Board of Education meetings to face-to-face meetings. He said the item was not an action item, and a vote would not be held during the current meeting. No discussion was made during the meeting about moving the meetings to face-to-face meetings.

Mr. Rhoda, brought up concerns about a newspaper report regarding East Arcadia’s grade levels. “I feel it is misleading,” Mr. Rhoda said.

Dr. Taylor stated he would read the article and, if necessary, would reach out to the newspaper regarding the concerns.

Mr. Rozier brought up Judge Lee signing a consent order on September 1st for the 2021 proposal for Leandro funding of $426.9 million. $4.375 million of the funding is for assistance and turnaround functions that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.
“I hope we will stay up on that to receive more funding for the Tier 1 Counties. We hope this will come to pass.”

Mr. Carroll said there was an update from the district about the proposal online. The then thanked all the teachers, staff, and cafeteria workers for keeping up and doing a good job.

He added, “It’s not only up to our facility and staff to keep our students safe. It’s up to the parents to keep our students safe, and well, and corona-free so that they can continue to come to school.”

In closing, Dr. Taylor reminded everyone to practice safety precautions and reported progress on roof repairs at the local high schools. “We are happy the repairs are coming to an end,” Dr. Taylor said.

“Finally, I do want to introduce Ms. Susan Harrison, our new Finance Officer,” Dr. Taylor stated.

Ms. Harrison said, “I do want to say I am excited to be back home in Bladen County. I am working on the budgets trying to get them in order for the 2020-2021 school year. Hopefully, by the October meeting, I will have a financial statement for you.”

In closing, Mr. Carroll echoed board member, Mr. Glenn McKoy, saying, “Let’s not get complacent.”

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