Lee County’s high schools will reopen March 1, almost a year after classrooms first closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lee County Board of Education decided Tuesday to reopen high schools in a 6-1 vote, with board member Patrick Kelly voting against. Kelly has said at previous meetings that he is hesitant to move forward with school reopenings because of the fatal risk COVID-19 presents to teachers and students.

High school students who chose Plan B, a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, in January, will resume in-person classes next month. The students will be divided into two groups — the first will attend in-person classes Monday and Tuesday, while the second will attend Thursday and Friday.

The high school reopening includes Lee County and Southern Lee high schools as well as Lee Early College and Bragg Street Academy. Wednesday will remain a virtual learning day for all students.

The school board also made some changes to in-person learning plans for elementary school students Tuesday.

Under the current plan, children in grades K-2 attend in-person classes four days per week, while children in grades 3-8 alternate between two days of virtual and in-person instruction.

Now, all third-grade students, as well as fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Exceptional Children Department, will be able to attend in-person classes four days per week. The change will go into effect Feb. 22.

The district is not yet able to allow all fourth and fifth-grade students to return to in-person education because the class sizes for those grades are larger, said Superintendent Andy Bryan.

“It’s much more difficult to have the 6-foot social distancing (for grades 4 and 5),” Bryan said. “We can ensure that in grades preK-3 because it’s a smaller class size.”

Chairwoman Sandra Bowen noted that any student to wishes to continue full-time virtual education can do so.

Doing the numbers

As of Tuesday, Lee County had recorded 5,050 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths since the pandemic broke out in March, Lee County Schools Nurse Supervisor Mary Hawley Oates reported Tuesday.

“When we met last, in January, there were 46 deaths,” Oates said. “So we’ve had 20 deaths in one-month’s-time, which is a tremendous increase in what we’ve been looking at over this entire time period.”

The good news is that, following the spike after Christmas and New Year’s, cases of COVID-19 are slowly going down. On Jan. 11, the weekly increase of cases was 394, Oates said. On Jan. 18, it decreased to 317, then 252 on Jan. 25, 202 on Feb. 1 and 166 on Tuesday.

“The numbers of cases that are testing positive are coming down week after week,” Oates said.

The county’s positivity rate is also coming down, although it was still at 11.8% Tuesday compared to the state’s 9.3%.

Oates said that schools are still one of the safest places for students to be, since teachers and staff are following safety protocols.

Reopening roadblocks

Some school board members expressed concern Tuesday that the school district would not have enough teachers and staff to safely reopen high schools.

Lee County teachers have been regularly quarantined since the start of the school year in an effort to prevent possible exposures from becoming COVID-19 outbreaks. The district has occasionally had to close classrooms because of a shortage of teachers and substitutes.

Bryan said he had met with school principals over the past week and, “they feel like we can handle those accommodations and those numbers (of students).”

Additionally, Bryan said the district plans to hire more teacher assistants, although he could not give an exact number.

Another challenge to keeping children safe during the school day is that some parents have not been reporting when their children test positive for COVID-19, Oates said.

“We do have parents who have had their kids tested and don’t identify to us that they have been tested, and then maybe come to school and we find out that they are positive,” Oates said. “We really need parents to make sure that they are safeguarding not only their own family, but everyone else’s family, by keeping those kids home.”

Also Tuesday, the school board approved:

• the 2021-2022 calendar for Tramway Elementary School, which returns the school to a year-round schedule after a year of using the traditional calendar; and

• a $78,635 contract with software company LINQ for the installation and use of new bookkeeping software for the district’s Finance and Human Resources departments.