BY KARISSA MILLER

Iredell-Statesville Schools staff members have prepared to return to a normal schedule as middle and high school students return to full-time in person instruction on Wednesday.

Superintendent Jeff James said the district will continue its virtual offerings, but there is a growing excitement to return to normal.

“I’m excited to have the kids back. The data shows that remote learning isn’t the best option for most students,” James said. “We are overly cautious and optimistic that coming back full time is the best thing to do.”

James said that I-SS’ failure rate has increased by 65 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We still have kids ghosting (not showing up),” James said. “I think one thing that the pandemic has shown is the value of face-to-face instruction.”

The superintendent hopes to see about 85 percent of middle and high school students return to full-time in-person instruction. That’s the approximate percentage of elementary age students who have returned to in-person learning.

James shared some of what I-SS is doing for school meals, bus capacity, current graduation plans and other safety efforts.

School Meals

I-SS is offering free breakfast and lunch to all students with no sign up necessary.

According to I-SS School Nutrition Director Tina Wilson, the USDA has extended federal waivers to allow students access to free school meals until September 30, 2021.

The waivers allow meals to be served at no cost — regardless of financial circumstances.

As COVID-19 has impacted the livelihood of many families, James said it’s important that the district continues to provide a healthy, nutritious meal to its students.

Buses and Transportation

Buses will run their normal routes on Wednesday.

Since the social distancing protocols have changed, students can now sit within three feet of each other. This will increase the number of students that can now ride the bus together.

“We may have to run some double routes on the first day,” James said.

The superintendent also mentioned that based on state rules and regulations the district must follow the six-foot rule in the classroom.

James said the district will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 transmission and continue to use best practices.

While there is a shortage of bus drivers statewide, James said I-SS has principals and support staff that are able to step in to help with transportation if needed.

I-SS raised bus driver pay to $13.50 an hour. James will also ask the board to approve another increase next fiscal year for bus drivers.

“We’re always looking for good bus drivers and continue to increase their hourly rate. We are looking for part-time and full-time drivers,” he said.

Graduation and Prom

I-SS is planning for the Class of 2021 to have a formal graduation ceremony following the end of the school year.

“My biggest joy is we are having face-to-face graduation,” James said.

Schools will likely hold their graduations on their football fields.

Additionally, principals are working with their students to hold a socially distanced sit-down meal instead of prom.

The principals will have a list of requirements to follow, which will follow the governor’s guidelines and CDC guidelines, to help their school come up with plans for that social event.

Safety

I-SS has been preparing the last six weeks to safely welcome more students back to school. District administrators have worked with school principals to ensure that teachers who are at high risk can remain virtual and work in a safe capacity.

James said that bipolar ionization is underway at four schools. The technology helps kill airborne viruses and stops the spread of bacteria.

“We’re scrambling to make our schools safer and looking into maybe even using it on our buses,” James said.

Other considerations

While everyone has stepped up to the challenges that COVID-19 has presented, the superintendent knows that are new COVID-19 variants that could adversely impact students and staff.

James knows that how quickly the school life comes back will depend on the success of the COVID-19 vaccination efforts and the ability to avoid widespread outbreaks.

“We have given just over 1,400 (Covid-19) shots with Iredell Memorial Hospital. This is out of a staff of about 2,500 employees, which means about 60 to 70 percent of our staff have been vaccinated,” James said.

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