On July 16, the Onslow County Board of Education weighed one of the biggest decisions it had ever faced.
Should it bring nearly 27,000 students back to 39 school buildings for in-person instruction in the middle of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that’s killed more than 1,800 people in North Carolina? Or should it exercise an abundance of caution and offer students remote learning only?
“Going into that meeting, we had a couple of board members who were not sure what they wanted to do,” said Pam Thomas, chairwoman of the OCS school board. “But as we looked at our data, everyone understood that foremost, we are educating the whole child and we need to have some understanding that social interaction is a very important part of developing a child and there’s no substitute for in-person instruction and personal contact.”
The seven-member panel unanimously agreed that the benefits of in-person instruction mixed with remote learning outweighed the danger and risks associated with the coronavirus.
The board’s reopening plan was among three options Gov. Roy Cooper told school districts they could use when they open next month. Plan B gave them the option to provide only remote instruction. Under a third option, Plan C, districts could fully reopen while following social distancing guidelines.
Without the governor’s directive — and a choice of plans — Thomas said the board was prepared to fully reopen for in-person instruction.
“We would have opened schools [with] social distancing as well as we could and following the protocol, but we would have opened on Aug. 17 like we normally would have,” Thomas said.
Onslow County has a population of nearly 200,000, including approximately 50,000 Marines and sailors.
Meanwhile Onslow County Schools students will be divided into two cohorts to keep buildings to no more than 50% of capacity. One cohort will attend school Monday and Tuesday for in-person instruction and learn from home Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The second cohort will receive in-person instruction Thursday and Friday and learn from home Monday through Wednesday.
However, about 40% of students in Onslow County attend schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity. At Camp Lejeune, those five schools are preparing to reopen with at least some in-person instruction.
“Our preferred goal will be to return to school on a regular full-time schedule for both students and staff,” DoDEA Director Tom Brady said in a message  to parents, students and staff. “Alternating days, half-days, or staggered schedules do not allow us to fully support the military mission.”
Decision followed the data
In Onslow County, there have been nine COVID-19-related deaths and 730 infections. Those numbers are relatively low compared to Duplin County, its mostly rural neighbor, which has recorded 1,887 infections and 42 deaths.
OCS school board member Earl Taylor said the data support reopening schools with some in-person instruction. “There are plenty of opinions flying around, but you’ve got to make decisions based on hard data,” Taylor said. “We’ve done that, and the staff has done that.”
Kristen Hoover, director of the Onslow County Health Department, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that the county’s children can safely return to in-person learning next month.
“We are working closely with our public school officials to review and implement the guidance contained within the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit,”  Hoover said.
Hoover noted, however, that Onslow county has seen an “acceleration” of infections as businesses re-opened and tourism picked up along the coast for the summer.
Teachers are concerned
Many of the state’s large, urban school districts in counties besieged by coronavirus infections and deaths have chosen to begin the new school year with remote-only instruction.
Teachers in districts with high rates of infections have been outspoken in their opposition to returning to schools for in-person instruction before the coronavirus is under control or a vaccine is developed.
They fear students might contract the virus and pass it to relatives with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious illness or death. They are concerned students might get sick, or even die after contracting the virus. And they worry about their own health and safety.
“Our primary concern is the safety our educators and students,” N.C. Association of Educators Presidents Tamika Walker Kelly told Policy Watch recently. “We’ve noticed and listened to the concerns of educators and families across the state and really all people want is for their kids to be safe, educators also want students to be safe and, of course, they want to be safe themselves.”
It was tough to decide whether to send their children back to schools in Onslow County for in-person instruction, said Jennifer and Jason Kellum. They have a son Jackson, enrolled in middle school and another son Mason, who attends high school.
Jennifer Kellum, a former teacher, still wrestles with the decision. “I will tell you that there are days I feel comfortable with my decision and there are days that I question it and wonder if I made the right decision,” she said.
She said her biggest fear is that one of her children will get sick. “Then, I also fear, what if they go to school and they’re asymptomatic and they get someone sick,” Kellum said. “I don’t want to be responsible for getting anyone else’s child sick.”
There have been reports  that children are less susceptible to contracting and spreading the coronavirus. Other reports have said children are less likely to become seriously ill if they do get it. Yet, some children, even those without underlying conditions, have died after becoming ill with the virus.
An elementary school student from Durham died in June after contracting the virus. Aurea Soto Morales was 8. She was a student at Creekside Elementary School.
A 9-year-old in Putnam County, Fla. was the youngest child in that state to die after contracting the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
A family member told media outlets that the child, Kimora “Kimmie” Lynum, was a healthy child with no preexisting conditions that would make her more susceptible to the virus.
Even though there are risks, Kellum said her sons are ready to return to school next month as many of their friends will be do.
“They didn’t want to entertain the idea of being homeschooled or enroll in 100% virtual learning at all,” she said.
A virtual option
All school districts were asked to provide families with a remote-learning option if they were uncomfortable with sending their kids back to classrooms for in-person instruction. Many districts have created virtual academies for students to attend in lieu of in-person instruction. Nearly half of the 160,000 students in the Wake County Public School System have signed up for the district’s virtual academy. About 3,000 students have enrolled in Onslow County’s’ virtual academy, according to the district.
Onslow County is as well-prepared as any district to move to remote instruction full-time. It nimbly did so in mid-March when schools across America closed for in-person instruction because of the pandemic.
And the school district gained lots of experience providing remote instruction in 2018 after Hurricane Florence battered the coast, damaging school buildings and forcing students to miss 40 days of in-person instruction.
“Hurricane Florence was the most devastating thing to ever hit our community,” school board member Earl Taylor said. “We learned an awful lot from that. Our staff has worked very hard since then to prepare for the next hurricane. Well, that hurricane is COVID-19 and it’s impacted everyone.”
Dawn Rochelle, executive director of the Onslow County Partnership for Children, said the lessons from Hurricane Florence help to make a compelling case for reopening schools sooner rather than later. “I think they [school board members] made the right decision,” Rochelle said. “Do we all have heightened anxiety and concerns about it? Sure, we do. We don’t want any children to be sick. We don’t want any educators to be sick, but I do think given our historical perspective with Hurricane Florence and knowing the impact on our students who had no instruction and limited instruction for 11 weeks, and now there’s been more missed instruction. I see both sides of the question.”
Jennifer Kellum serves on the board of the Onslow County Partnership for Children, a a private nonprofit agency that advocates and provides services for the healthy development of children. From that perspective, Kellum understands why the in-person instruction component of OCS’ reopening plan is an important one.
“I see a different side of this,” Kellum said. “I see the kids who truly need to be back into a place where they feel safe.”
Business for Kellum’s travel agency and the industry overall came to a “screeching halt” in March, she said. And adjusting to virtual learning while fighting to save her business was a challenge.
“So, when virtual learning was going on in March, there I was trying to save my agency and we’re doing virtual learning at the same time and we’ve got two kids who work differently, and it was difficult,” Kellum said.
It’s difficult to imagine the struggles families faced with fewer resources than ones she has, Kellum said.
“When I look back on it, my kids had every tool the needed for success,” Kellum said. “They don’t have food insecurities. We don’t have issues with internet and electricity. They’re not watching younger siblings. They have educated parents and it was still difficult for us. What is this like for families who can’t say the same thing?”