WINDSOR – It was back in March 2020 when N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all North Carolina schools to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was thought to have been for only a few weeks. Now it’s been almost 12 months since Bertie County Schools students have appeared in a classroom for live instruction.

But that’s about to change.

On Monday evening at a called meeting of the Bertie County Board of Education, Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood made a recommendation for a return to in-person learning under Plan B which requires in-person social distancing along with a hybrid attendance schedule that includes continued remote learning for those families that chose to do so.

“If COVID-19 metrics permit, the recommendation is to transition to Plan B with continued implementation of health and safety protocols,” the superintendent’s recommendation read.

Bertie County now joins the other Roanoke-Chowan region counties (Hertford, Gates, Northampton, Martin and Chowan) with a plan in place to aid students, parents, and stakeholders with the adjustment back to in-person instruction.

Bertie’s move to Plan-B will begin on March 22.

“This will start with the beginning of our fourth nine-weeks,” Smallwood said following the meeting. “Unless the (state legislature) comes up with something more stringent, this is the plan we will start up with regardless of what they decide in Raleigh.”

Last week, the North Carolina General Assembly gave bipartisan approval to legislation letting families choose whether to return to in-person learning in public schools.

Senate Bill 37 requires schools to provide access to in-person learning under Plan A (minimal social distancing) for students with exceptional needs. It also requires schools to provide in-person learning options for all K-12 students under either Plan A or Plan B (moderate social distancing), and allows teachers and staff members who self-identify as high-risk from COVID-19 to seek modified accommodations to minimize exposure risk.

That legislation still awaits Governor Roy Cooper’s signature before becoming law, and he has voiced reservations about some portions of the ball.

Meanwhile, Bertie County Schools have been communicating with parents both in person, by telephone, and through social media to gauge the level of participation by students.

BCS Executive Director of Human Resources and Operations Michael White displayed for the board members the five Guiding Principles the county will use to mitigate the return:

- ensure a healthy and safe return environment for students and staff.

- maintain choice in student learning options.

-provide instruction that meets state and federal standards and provides support for student success.

-design training and support for staff to prepare for a successful reopening.

-share proactive, transparent communication with families and staff.

White said schools will be equipped with disinfectants, sanitizers, masks, face shields, signage and thermometers. There will be some desk shields for students, and desks will be spaced out six feet apart in each classroom.

Other safety protocols include mandating the “3Ws” of hand washing, waiting six feet apart and wearing a mask appropriately. Temperatures checks will be done when entering the schools. School bus riders will be socially distanced and the vehicles will be sanitized at least once daily.

To prevent cross-contamination, only high school students will change classrooms; teachers will rotate at elementary schools. Hallway movement will be monitored for social distancing.

In addition to supervised outdoor recess for elementary students, there will be athletic participation in baseball, softball, and track and field in the middle school and high school level. Practices begin March 1, except for high school baseball and track & field, which will begin practice on April 12. There will be a reduced schedule of games and meets.

There will have to be alternatives for Band and Glee Club as those activities, naturally, involve the absence of masks.

The blended learning model provides for two cohorts: Both would have staggered in-person and virtual learning four days a week (Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday) with Wednesday as the Remote Learning Day, which staff would use for deep cleaning of buildings and classrooms.

For the parents who choose virtual learning only: students will learn remotely five days a week; live instruction every day but Wednesday which would be designated a remote learning day.

White emphasized sign-up for in-person cohort designation needs to take place by Friday (Feb. 26).

“The week of March 1 through next week we want to communicate to parents whether to choose Cohort A or B, and that would give them two weeks to get our final bus map and let parents know about pick-up times and all that,” White said. “That’s why Friday is crucial; we really are trying to thoroughly prepare for the return of students.”

“We’re trying to make sure we communicate with parents as much as we can to keep them well informed,” Smallwood added. “This gives them every chance to respond, but if they still don’t feel safe we have a well-thought out option that will still serve the purpose for the rest of the school year.”

Board chair Tarsha Dudley led the entire school board in commending the superintendent, White, and staff for their presentation and planning.

“At least we have something we can follow,” she said.

While the school board awaits a final decision on Senate Bill 37, counsel informed them that approval of the superintendent’s recommendation now would allow them time to make adjustments in time for their March 9 regular meeting.

Four board members approved a motion to accept the recommendation with one abstention (Christine Dudley), who wanted more time to review the material to make adjustments as necessary.

“Not that I disagree with it, I just want to read it and absorb it and we can move forward,” she said.

Prior to adjournment, a second vote was taken, and the motion unanimously approved, allowing participation in middle school and high school sports.

Gene Motley can be reached via email at bertienews@ncweeklies.com.

Thadd White is Editor of the Bertie Ledger-Advance and can be reached via email at twhite@ncweeklies.com.