BACK TO SCHOOL: Parents, students anxious to start another year impacted by COVID

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Almost a dozen local school districts opened their doors Monday to welcome students back to class for another year.

The hallways and classrooms will once again be filled, but this school year will be another with anxieties surrounding in-person learning as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues its surge in our communities.

[WSOC SPECIAL SECTION: Back to School]

Some families have mixed emotions about being back inside the classroom.

Students in Union County will be coming back to in-person instruction five days a week, which is a big deal after a tumultuous last year. Some students are still making up for learning loss, and some haven’t been physically inside a school for more than a year.

One family Channel 9 spoke with, though nervous about the health risk, is excited to be back.

“Excited but nervous,” said student Infinity Spruill.

That’s the typical swirl of emotions that thousands of students across our area are feeling as they start another school year. Spruill is a fifth grader at Poplin Elementary School and described what the past year has been like for her.

“It was a little confusing because we started off as virtual, then we’re going back to school and kind of switched up doing that a lot,” she said.

Infinity’s mother, Kristy Spruill, told Channel 9 it has been difficult to ensure kids are getting the education they need while knowing there’s only so much she can control.

“It’s been very tough,” she said. “When the virtual thing first came out, with me working, my husband working -- it was a very, very tough year, but we made it through it with God’s grace.”

(WATCH BELOW: Reporter Elsa Gillis’ update as Union County schools return to the classroom on Monday morning)

The Spruills are hoping that this year will be better.

“We’re doing our best and I just pray that we don’t have another year like we did last year,” Kristy Spruill said. “It was tough on the girls because, you know, they got behind, so they did go to the summer camp that the school did offer, and they did very well in the summer camp, but they still are behind in reading and math.”

That’s an issue all of our school districts are faced with -- continuing to make up for “learning loss” while at the same time trying to keep everyone safe.

“I’m just scared, because one of my cousin’s died of COVID last week, and lots of our family members have COVID, but we’re all better now,” Infinity Spruill said. “It’s just really scary.”

Union County Schools is one of the few districts in our area where masks are optional. That policy, which has parents divided, could be reevaluated at future school board meetings.

(WATCH BELOW: Parents, students anxious to start third school year impacted by COVID)

‘The word that we’ve used a lot is flexibility’

For many students, Monday was their first time in the classroom in more than a year following remote learning.

Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis spoke to Union County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan ahead of the start of the new school year.

“How would you describe the last year and a half?” Elsa asked him.

“Incredible,” Houlihan answered. “The word that we’ve used a lot is flexibility and agility.”

The superintendent said that while words like unprecedented and historic have been used to describe last year, he likes to also view it as a successful one.

“We’re very, very proud of our students, of our educators, of our families,” Houlihan said.

He’s excited for the start of a new year and told Channel 9 he feels good about how they’re entering it from an academic standpoint, based on the data they have – though, like we saw everywhere, failure rates did increase last year.

“Our failure rate across the district was different between elementary, middle and high school,” Houlihan said. “Our middle schoolers had the largest failure rate. Larger than they’ve ever had before which is concerning for our middle level educators, but again, I think we’ve worked pretty hard over the past six weeks of the summer to try and catch as many kids up as we can.”

As that work continues, Houlihan shared a different concern on his radar, addressing social-emotional needs.

“We have students that have not been in a school building since March 2020 and we’ve seen a lot of the research and heard from a lot of our community about the impact on mental health,” Houlian said. “Our student support teams are really ramped up to help our kids and to meet them where they are, and counselors are prepared to address any concerns that our children have as well.”

With the physical health of students and staff a top priority as COVID-19 rages on, Houlihan addressed the district’s mask-optional policy.

“Nearly every health organization and professional has said masks should be worn in school -- that was one of the main reasons that you were able to keep students in-person last year. Why go against that guidance starting Monday?” Elsa asked.

“Our board believes in parental choice. They’ve heard from a lot of our communities and feedback in the July board meeting that’s what they decided to do. We stay in contact with our health department,” the superintendent said.

Elsa followed up by asking if Houlihan was concerned about quarantines and closing schools if students and teachers get COVID with the current mask-optional policy in place.

“I think at any point in time, just like we talked about a year ago, not knowing exactly how things were going to unfold, and that little bit again, I think if we had face coverings required, we’d be in that same position,” Houlihan said. “Our contact tracers, our nurses, our staff members -- we will have close protocols and tight protocols to identify close contacts or exposures if that occurs and we’re gonna deal with that head-on.”

Last week, the school board approved a plan to provide virtual after-school and weekend support to students impacted by quarantine to help keep them up to speed, in addition to approving a plan for virtual tutors for students who need it.

There will be one tutor for every grade level, K-5, and four tutors for middle schools and four for high schools.

The district is also paying more, Houlihan said.

“We’ve allocated a higher rate of base pay for teachers because they are going above and beyond,” he said.

Funds have been given to each school for this and parents would need to contact the staff members to get involved.

The district is still looking to hire about 50 school bus drivers -- the goal is to have 235-250 full-time drivers. Houlihan said several board committee meetings are planned this week to look at possible proposals that will help increase compensation for bus drivers.

(WATCH BELOW: Channel 9 speaks with Union County superintendent ahead of new school year)

Gaston County students, teachers head back to class under mask mandate

In Gaston County, the school board made the decision last week to change their policy from mask-optional to masks required -- a decision that came as a surprise to many parents.

The board initially voted in July to let parents decide whether their kids would wear masks at school. But after more than 100 kids in the county tested positive for COVID ahead of the school year, they reversed that decision.

Last week, during a school board meeting, Gaston County leaders changed course and decided to mandate masks for the beginning of the school year. A presentation by the health department director left a majority of board members believing that an outbreak was inevitable.

In the public comment period, a group of doctors also urged the board to go back to a mask mandate.

(WATCH BELOW: Reporter Anthony Kustura’s update as students had back to school Monday morning in Gaston County)

“Everybody wants to get rid of these masks but, unfortunately, with this delta variant, the levels have gotten so high it’s even worse than it was last year,” said Dr. Crystal Bowe.

If there’s a confirmed case at a Gaston County school, the district will follow the state’s recommendations -- and that has some parents feeling optimistic about a safe start to the school year.

Because so many students aren’t old enough for a COVID-19 vaccine, many parents, like Christina Lewis, think it’s a good idea to mask up.

“Anything to keep everybody safe,” she said. “It’s OK, they’re used to it.”

Other parents, though, told Channel 9 that masks should be optional.

“Every family, you know, is different, so it’s really up to them,” said Elit Williams.

“I don’t think it should be a requirement but if you feel like your kid is safer with a mask, then they should wear it,” said another parent, John Carmichael.

To prevent the spread of COVID, hand-washing, sanitizing and social distancing will be enforced to keep everyone safe. Each school is also assigned a full-time nurse to care for students. That’s a big difference compared to when some nurses bounced between several schools last year.

Overall, parents told Channel 9 they’re just glad kids are back in the classroom.

“They need to be around other kids,” Carmichael said. “Being at home with mom and dad all day gets kind of boring.”

“Routine is good for kids, you know?” said Leslie Blanton. “To see their friends and to spread love and show love.”

The mask mandate applies to everyone, regardless of vaccination status. It will be in place during the first month of the school year.

Wearing masks in schools is also expected to reduce the number of people required to quarantine should there be a confirmed case. The board will meet again on Sept. 20 to reassess and go back to giving parents the option if conditions improve.

(WATCH BELOW: Some parents worried to send kids back to classroom in Union Co. with masks being optional)