State leaders notified school officials across North Carolina that they "strongly recommended that all public schools provide in-person instruction using the safety protocols outlined in the NC Strong Schools Toolkit,” updated on February 2, 2021. They advised research has shown that these protocols are working and that “schools can reopen when they follow specific COVID-19 mitigation strategies.”
Our staff has reviewed the updated safety protocols. Some of the critical requirements outlined pose unique challenges for the Governor Morehead School given our students’ special needs and the residential component of our program. Some of the challenging requirements include:
1. Social Distancing Protocols to Minimize Exposure - It is difficult for students and staff with limited or no vision to judge the distance between themselves and others. In some situations, and for some students who require assistance much of the time, physical guidance is required for the safe movement and travel of students and staff with varying visual abilities.
2. Protecting Vulnerable Populations – 55% of our students are medically fragile, and 25% have difficulties following safety guidelines. Therefore, a total of 80% of the students enrolled at GMS are at higher risk for COVID-19.
3. Cleaning and Hygiene - Keeping hands and surface clean is challenging and the need is significantly increased when the hands are used as eyes to “tactually see” the environment. The hands are constantly exploring materials, supplies, equipment, furniture, railings, and travel routes to seek input from the environment.
4. Monitoring for Symptoms – It is challenging to quarantine students which require additional staff to monitor and care for them while they are separated from others. Families would be contacted to pick-up students so they would not ride the bus and potentially expose others. If families are unable to come to Raleigh, staff would have to transport student’s homes. Increased staff exposure would occur during the quarantine.
5. Handling Suspected, Presumptive or Confirmed Cases of COVID-19 - Students and staff come from approximately one-third of the counties across the state of NC whose positivity for COVID -19 is currently 7.8% and enter Wake County with a positivity rating of 8.4%. Three shifts of staff enter and leave the facility six days a week when students are on campus. This exponentially increases the amount of exposure for the campus.
6. Social-Emotional Support - The heightened fear around COVID-19 in the community sometimes overflows and impacts our students and staff. As things continue to calm down, hopefully, people will continue to feel safer. Willingness to assist others who do not see visual markers and signs for COVID-19 Safety will again be extended to those who travel independently throughout the community. 7. Schools for the Blind across the nation are facing these challenges and reflect their state's guidelines for education services. Our sister schools offer in-person learning on-and-off to small groups of students amidst the challenges of congregant living. Throughout this time, they have set up quarantines, switched from remote learning to in-person learning, open and closed programs, and back again, as COVID-19 infections necessitate. The one significant factor is that schools that have been able to have large groups or all of their students who are 18 and older, and their staff fully vaccinated are able to move more successfully to in-person learning.
Throughout the pandemic, we have also watched the data for long-term care facilities in NC because our students stay residentially from Sunday evenings until Friday afternoons. The facilities are similar, with residents staying in the facility and staff coming in to work daily. There have been five hundred twenty-four cases in twenty-two facilities in Wake County and the data continues improving daily for COVID-19 cases and in the number of clients and staff receiving vaccinations. The COVID-19 Vaccination Program in the state is also becoming more organized. Hopefully, the sixty-five-year-olds and front-line workers in the first group will be completed and the groups containing school personnel will begin to be vaccinated. Governor Cooper announced that schools can begin receiving vaccinations on February 24, 2021.
Preventative measures are important to the success of in-person learning. Due to the nature of our students and programs, GMS will continue to offer remote learning instruction through the end of the school year for those students that are at higher risk. However, for those students that would like to return to in-person learning, as the rate of positive cases continues to decrease, and the number of staff able to receive vaccines increase, it is likely we may be able to open the school for the Fourth Quarter, March 22, 2021.
Parents wishing to participate in an open discussion and forum, we would be glad to schedule a date and time to discuss any concerns or issues. Additional information will be shared in the upcoming week for those who are interested. Thank you for your ongoing support and please stay safe.
Barbria Bacon Superintendent/School Director
CC Dr. Derrick Jordan, Assistant State Superintendent for Agency Schools