Here's an inside look at how Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools prepared for back-to-school amid COVID-19 pandemic

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Months before any back-to-school guidance was issued, officials at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools knew there were 'daunting challenges' ahead.

The ABC11 I-team obtained emails sent to and between top district officials in the months leading up to the district's decision to resume classes virtually.

The emails reveal officials were discussing back-to-school plans throughout the summer and reviewed multiple other states and districts' approaches.

The first email the I-team obtained dates back to May 15 and discusses CDC's initial guidance on reopening schools. Protecting students and staff who are at high risk and screening people when they arrive at school emerged as the top measures officials needed to consider.

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"I will be blunt. Since the start of our switch to remote learning in March, I have held the belief that we are going to need to utilize remote learning next school year as well in some form of fashion," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson wrote. "Now is the time to begin our conversation on how we improve remote learning."

He pointed to challenges including the length of time it would take to screen all students, extra space needed in buildings for social distancing and teacher shortage due to those in the 'at-risk' category.

"None of these decisions will be easy, but they are decisions that must be made," Johnson said.

School reopening plans from Maryland, Missouri and Oklahoma are shared between officials.

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At the beginning of June, CHCCS officials reviewed a message updating families and staff on plans moving forward.

"Clearly, this is a school season like none other, and the road ahead contains more and different variables that make for a general uneasiness among all of us," district executive director of community relations Jeff Nash wrote.

The email addressed working with a steering committee for fall planning and moving up the start of school to Aug. 17.

On June 5, state education leaders received a draft of guidelines from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

"I know many of you were expecting a defined list of requirements, but it appears that a majority of the Cooper's administration's guidance on substantive issues (social distance, face covers, remote learning, etc) would be recommendations for August rather than requirements. If our great state takes a turn for the worse, though, those recommendations could then become requirements," Johnson wrote.

In the same email, Johnson mentioned state education leaders are working on creating strategies to send the task force of additional feedback.

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The next week, CHCCS's district cabinet receives the final guidance for North Carolina's remote instruction plan. The guidance ranges from communication to training to partnerships for broadband access.

Emails exchanged later in June show state and local officials continued to communicate and plan for various options while waiting for Governor Cooper's final decision.

Johnson wrote in one email that Plan B, allowing schools to reopen in a limited capacity, would be "the hardest to accomplish."

"Under Plan B, we will need to help schools navigate huge challenges. How can we transport students to school with limited bus capacity? What creative partnerships can we establish to support parents who rely on their child being at school every day if we switch to A/B days," Johnson asked.

In the beginning of July, district leaders reviewed plans Wake, Durham and Winston-Salem/Forsyth created that included cost estimates for services.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools estimated cleaning and sanitizing would cost $4.5 million and a remote instruction plan would cost $15.5 million.

On July 9, the school board approved a hybrid back-to-school model offering both in-person and virtual learning.

Shortly after the decision, many parents started emailing the board.

"Too many people in our community have developed an abnormal fear of COVID-19," wrote one parent asking for a 100 percent in-person option. "In-person school is essential for your children's' health and development and kids are best served by being in the classroom alongside their peers and teachers."

Another parent who identified themselves as a doctor pointed to Wake and Durham schools "being sensitive to the exponential increase in new cases and related hospitalizations within our region and are being prudent in planning."

Another set of parents wrote the board over concerns of how the virus spreads and the lack of effectiveness temperature checks have at catching all positive cases.

"I certainly do not mean to second guess all of that but with such critically high stakes (not just for our health but also for our daughter's education and development), I thought it was important to share the concern," the parent wrote.

A week later, the board reversed course and votes to begin classes fully virtual for the first semester.

At the start of July, Dr. Jim Causby started as the interim superintendent for the district.

He said the decision to switch the fall semester plans was based on differing responses the district received between parents and staff.

"We found that they were just the opposite of each other for example we were getting about 60% of our staff that was requesting virtual learning, saying they had situations that were family concerns or personal concerns or just a fear and a fear is just as palpable as those other things are," Causby said.

He noted as principals started trying to put schedules together to accommodate both virtual and in-person learning it became "impossible."

Another issue the district ran into was a variance between the families who were opting out of in-person learning.

"We had a large percent of our white families who were requesting in person but we had a large percentage of our families of color who were requesting virtual and so we realized very quickly that's almost a resegregation of the school system if we did that and that was a real concern in our community," Causby said.

Those factors played a big part in the switch in July along with looking at the number of COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community.

"The overriding factor was safety. That was the number one factor and someone says, 'Well what is an acceptable number?' and my board's acceptable number for infection or death is zero and I share that concern with them," he said.

The last emails ABC11 obtained show school leaders corresponding with health officials at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

Causby said a group of parents created a COVID-19 Scientific Analysis Board that he and other districts have been working with to run plans by.

"We're trying to follow the science. We make decisions based upon science and our analysis board has been really helpful for us in that aspect," Causby said.

He also said before he started with the district there was a 100-member committee that was working on doing preparation and planning.

"Our educators really care, they are working very, very hard and they were kind of dumped into a situation back in March that they never experienced before, they had not planned for but they did the best they could with it,' said Causby.

The ABC11 I-team also requested emails between officials at Wake Public Schools and Durham County Schools, but is still waiting for the records.
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