By ANGELA FARR KING
The Alexander County Board of Education held their regularly scheduled meeting at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 8.
The meeting was opened by Chairman David Odom with member Ramie Robinson leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dr. Robyn Helton, Executive Director of Exceptional Children, and Donna Mayberry, Lead School Nurse for Alexander County, introduced a new “Test to Stay” protocol from the ABC Science Collaborative as an initiative to lessen the high amount of student quarantining. The ABC Science Collaborative was developed by the Duke University School of Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute in response to Covid-19 and its impact on schooling.
Helton and Mayberry explained that this new protocol would allow for Covid testing to take place at school so that more students could remain in school instead of being sent home for testing and quarantining. The new protocol would be implemented using the following guidelines:
In a “Mask Required” setting, students coming in close contact with someone in their household infected with Covid-19 can opt to be tested at school on the day of notification and be tested every other day until 15 days after their household member tested positive. A positive point in this case is that household close contacts could also participate, in addition to students. One of the negatives to this scenario is that it would require students to be tested eight times during this 15 day period.
In a “Mask Optional” setting, if a student is in close contact at school, extracurricular activity, etc., he/she could remain in school and be tested on days 1, 3, and 5. A negative to this scenario is that these students could not participate in athletics or extracurricular activities for those five days.
Dr. Helton noted that there will need to be 2 or 3 non certified people hired to administer the tests and they will be trained through the ABC Science Collaborative. This protocol will NOT be required. Parents can opt out and adhere to the current quarantine policies. There will be no cost to students for the tests.
Dr. Jennifer Hefner stated that it would be best to begin the “Test and Stay” protocol at the high school on a trial basis because it is the largest school with the largest number of Covid-19 cases. After some discussion and clarification, the board voted to begin the “Test and Stay” protocol at the high school. Of the board members present, Ramie Robinson was the only one who voted against this new protocol. Board member Marty Loudermilt was absent.
Presentation from Duke Univ. medical professor heard
In another Covid related agenda item, a presentation was made by Dr. Daniel K. Benjamin, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics, Duke University School of Medicine. His presentation focused on “Eliminating Quarantining in Universally Masked Settings.” He complimented the Alexander County Board of Education for being one of the first school systems in the country to return to in-person learning in 2021 and noted that they have made “good decisions” throughout the pandemic.
To summarize his lengthy report, his stance is that schools should absolutely stay open, but they need to continue to require masks because he believes they help to decrease infections. He is also an advocate for vaccinations to help combat Covid among children. He noted that hospitals are still requiring masks and have been successful with controlling infection rates. He cited case studies that indicate that requiring masks full time in schools has been effective in many school systems across the country.
Benjamin stated that he expects Covid numbers to continue to decrease as Spring approaches and the public can expect to see a change in quarantine and masking guidelines from the CDC.
In another topic of great interest to the community, Jessica Anderson, Director of Accountability and Student Services, gave an in depth presentation about the school system’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum. Anderson explained that what was once known as “Character Education,” has become a deeper and more strategic plan to address the social and emotional needs of students. She explained that Alexander County Schools have long implemented a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to address the “whole child” for optimal student success and the Social and Emotional screener from Panorama Ed has been employed as one tool under the MTSS umbrella.
The county has purchased Panorama Ed as a means to survey and screen the mental health of students. She noted that Panorama Ed was researched, along with three other universal screening tools, before it was chosen. The school system chose this screener because it has been proven to address all of the components required by the state. She also noted that when surveyed, 100% of schools in Alexander County asked for some type of tool to assist with social and emotional instruction.
The following is a list of points of interest that could assist in clearing up any misconceptions about the current SEL screener Panorama Ed, as explained by Anderson:
• There are no questions on the survey about gender identification or human sexuality.
• It is not a psychological assessment.
• The screener (survey) helps to examine core strategies for learning.
• Any instruction beyond core strategies would require parental permission.
• Principals have been asked to notify parents when surveys will take place.
• Parents can contact school counselors with questions or concerns.
• Parents are invited to review the survey questions.
• Parents can have their child “opt out” of the survey.
A link to all survey questions can be found on the Alexander County Schools Homepage. Survey results are only shared with staff that have need to access them for the purpose of educating a child.
Survey results are not housed in cumulative record folders. The data is used to make instructional decisions, not to label students.
Wittenburg Elementary update
Principal Ashley Weber shared a presentation about Wittenberg Elementary highlighting the school’s goals to increase parent engagement and community involvement. The Wittenberg School Improvement also has a goal to “improve student relationships with each other and staff members.” She noted that they have a variety of community partners and they are focusing on celebrations this year.
Mrs. Melinda Glenn, principal of the Alexander County Virtual Academy, then gave updates about her online learning community. She noted that there are currently 26 elementary students and 24 middle school students enrolled in the virtual academy with five amazing teachers. She highlighted their ability to be flexible with students due to the virtual nature of their classes. Some students who are struggling can “double dip” or participate in more than one grade level via Zoom. In other words, a student struggling in fifth grade math, can attend fifth grade math class, but can also attend fourth grade math class. Likewise, more advanced students can participate in higher grade level instruction so that they can advance more rapidly.
Mrs. Glenn also noted that students meet in person three Wednesdays per month for WIN (What I Need) time. This is for remediation or acceleration. One Wednesday per month is designated as a STEAM day to focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math related activities. Those students who do not wish to meet in person can opt to stay at home and alternate activities are provided for them.
In other school news:
• Dr. Betsy Curry, Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, then gave a midyear report based on academic data collected from iready testing. She was able to display data charts that indicate that more students are achieving grade level proficiency than last year when most learning took place remotely. The data indicates that iready test scores are back to the level where they were prior to the pandemic in math and are very close to that in reading. She compared the data from Alexander County to the state averages and Alexander County is comparable. Sometimes the scores in Alexander County actually exceed state averages.
• Dr. Jennifer Hefner reviewed the guidelines for the “Award of Honor” that will be given to “individuals who have made exceptional contributions to Alexander County Schools or to any of its individual schools.” In her superintendent’s report, she noted that the Strategic Planning Process will begin on February 22nd. These planning meetings will be opportunities for representatives to share perspectives and visions for Alexander County Schools. She also noted that February is Career and Technical Education month and shared the CTE newsletter. She then shared the required School Mental Health Support Personnel Report, which documents the number of school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses in the school system. Finally, she shared that Campbell Shatley Attorneys at Law will be in service to the Board of Education effective July 1, 2022.
• Ms. Sharon Mehaffey, Chief Financial Officer, presented seven revisions to board policy for their first reading, including 3410 Testing and Assessment Program, 3460 Graduation Requirements, 4152 Unsafe School Choice Transfer, 4300 Student Behavior Policies, 4316 Student Dress Code, 4400 Attendance, 4700 Student Records.
• Charmion Frizsell, Head Start Director, then shared school readiness goals for the Head Start Program, which are broken into five categories, including Education, Health, Nutrition, Safety and Social/Emotional Wellbeing, and Family and Community Engagement. Each individual goal was stated with strategies to implement them, followed by ways to measure success. She noted ones that have been completed and are still in progress. She also noted that the Head Start Program has recently added a nurse to their staff. The board voted to approve these goals.
• The board recognized Beta Club members from Alexander Central High School who had recently traveled to Greensboro for a Beta Club convention and competition. Dr. Jennifer Hefnter, Superintendent of Schools, recognized the students with assistance from board member Harry Schrum. There were several student winners from ACHS, including Griffin Duncan, fifth place for ninth grade math; Alex Floyd, first place for ninth grade science; Jessica Herrera, first place for ninth grade Spanish; Corban Parker, fourth place for twelth grade science; Braedon Robinson, fourth place for ninth grade agriscience; Nolan Heath, third place for Woodworking Division II; Benny Heath, fifth place for Woodworking Division I; and Grant Sizemore, third place for Technology. Ansley Scott was also recognized for representing ACHS in the run for state president and the ACHS Beta Club also received fifth place for their campaign skit.
• In a final discussion about the current mask mandates, Vice Chairman Matt Cooksey explained his reasoning for supporting current mask mandates, which are flexibly based on Covid-19 data. This led to all board members sharing their opinions about masking and why they choose to vote either for or against required masking. During the discussion, board member Harry Schrum made a motion to make masks optional beginning on February 28. He said he had discussed the declining Covid-19 cases with medical experts and believes that by this date, there will no longer be a need to require masks. After discussion, this motion was voted on. Brigette Rhyne, Harry Schrum, and Ramie Robinson voted “yes” to this motion, while Scott Bowman, David Odom, and Matt Cooksey voted “no, ” resulting in a tie.
A new motion was made to maintain the current masking policy until the next board meeting. All board members present then voted to pass this motion, with the exception of Ramie Robinson, who voted against it. Marty Loudermilt was absent.
[Editor’s Note: During the public comment period, six speakers came forward: Julia Carpenter, Alexander County Chapter of Moms for Liberty, asking to make face masks optional; Katie Hanshew, with questions about the Social-Emotional Learning survey; Shari Wetherspoon, also with concerns about Social-Emotional Learning; Kelly Moore, who spoke about misconduct in public office and federalization of local governments; Christa Roseberry, on concerns with Dr. Daniel Benjamin’s information; Kelly Flanagan, on the harm of masking children.
During Dr. Benjamin’s presentation, one member of the audience shouted questions and caused a disturbance. Later in the meeting, Chairman Odom noted there no further outbursts like that would be tolerated this year. He also noted that masks would not be optional in school board meetings, as it is a precaution to help Superintendent Hefner, as she is battling cancer.]
The board then entered into closed session. The next meeting for the Alexander County School board will be Tuesday, March 8, at 6:00 p.m.