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Spark Reopening: Accelerating Student Learning in the New Normal of 2020-21

Version 1: July 10, 2020 (Spanish translation coming soon) (PDF)

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic transformed public education in North Carolina and the United States. Durham Public Schools was one of the first public school districts in North Carolina to close its campuses and make the transition to blended remote learning to prevent the coronavirus’s spread. Along with the rest of the state, DPS changed its approach to teaching and learning in the blink of an eye.

Due to the pandemic’s sudden onset and a persistent digital divide, and following guidance from the State Board of Education, DPS offered supplementary instruction to our students through online instruction as well as pre-printed material. Equity was a fundamental concern: no student could be penalized due to their level of access to technology.

Working with the Spark Reopening Task Force of administrators, teachers, and health professionals, DPS leaders now have the opportunity to shape proactively and intentionally learning and teaching for the 2020-21 school year, rather than react to an unprecedented crisis. Our students deserve an entire school year of high-quality instruction from engaged educators, along with the support of school counselors, social workers, and other district professionals. Whatever shape the pandemic takes this fall, we must be prepared to move our students forward academically and socio-emotionally. This must be a year of progress and discovery, one that fulfills the Durham Public Schools vision of igniting limitless potential.

An Important Note

This plan for reopening is a living document. Scientists and public health officials are always learning more about COVID-19, and the spread of the disease will be greatly affected by local, state, and national public policies. As conditions or official recommendations change, we will update this plan.

Three Scenarios

All North Carolina school districts are required by Governor Roy Cooper to plan for three possible scenarios for the reopening of school in the 2020-21 school year. 

  • Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing
    Plan A assumes that COVID-19 has plateaued or even subsided. All schools would be fully open for students, but there would be some modifications to practices to reduce the opportunity for community spread of the virus. Face coverings, entry screenings, and social distancing when possible would be required, but there would be minimal restrictions of movement.

  • Plan B: Increased Social Distancing
    Plan B assumes that more significant measures are required to reduce the spread of COVID-19, requiring building occupancy at 50 percent of capacity and bus occupancy at 33 percent of capacity. Operational constraints would be based on current health and safety guidelines to mitigate risk. There would be mandatory social distancing and restriction of movement. As part of developing Plan B, DPS has been proactive and intentional in prioritizing in-person learning opportunities for those grade levels and specific student populations particularly at risk such as students with IEPs and English learners.

  • Plan C: Remote Instruction Only
    Plan C does not permit in-person instruction. Instead, all learning would be provided remotely. This presents the lowest health and safety risk at school, but also poses the greatest concern for engaging students in active learning.

The Governor will determine the baseline for North Carolina school districts. School districts may choose to operate at that level or a more restrictive Plan, but not a less restrictive Plan. For example, if the Governor declares North Carolina schools to be in Plan B, DPS may operate under Plan B or Plan C.

Governing Principles for DPS

Through each plan, DPS prioritizes the following four governing principles.

  • To the greatest and safest extent possible, provide face-to-face instruction for our most vulnerable students.
  • Comply with requirements of the state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Public Instruction.
  • Comply with other orders of state, county, and city government.
  • Recognize and address operational limiting factors such as transportation capacity, classroom space, adequate funding, and staff availability. 

The academic needs of our students will drive our decision making. The operational constraints that we operate under—which will be greatly affected by the severity of COVID-19—will provide guard rails on those decisions. Durham Public Schools must provide the most robust learning environment possible within the safest environment possible for students and staff.

In determining that appropriate balance we are following:

  • North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) Interim Guidance

  • North Carolina Department of Public Instruction: Lighting Our Way Forward: North Carolina’s Guidebook for Reopening Public Schools

  • Orders of Durham County Government and the City of Durham

  • Recommendations of the Durham County Department of Public Health

In particular, recommendations from NCDHHS are also informed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three key factors in the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools are being actively developed by the Daily Operations subcommittee of the Spark Reopening Task Force:

  • Screening students and employees upon arrival for symptoms and history of COVID-19 exposure

  • Promotion of healthy hygiene practices such as hand washing and face coverings

  • Social distancing

CDC flowchart thumbnail

CDC flowchart

Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing

Plan A would be the least restrictive plan; however, there would still be scheduling and operational changes to reduce the opportunity for spread of COVID-19. Due to the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic, DPS plans to open on Plan B (and is authorized to do so under the Governor’s executive orders, even if the Governor were to determine that the state could open under Plan A). However, these social distancing measures are a baseline to build from for Plan B and would be in place if DPS were able to move to Plan A during the school year.


  • Social distancing would be required only where individuals might congregate, such as hallways, lobbies, cafeterias, restrooms, and locker rooms.
  • The cafeteria would be closed for full capacity, with the possibility of delivering food to classrooms and outside areas.
  • Entry and dismissal locations would be spread out across the campus.
  • Assemblies would be closed for full capacity.
  • Some electives, special classes, and other services would be provided by adults moving from classroom to classroom rather than students.

Health and Safety

  • Social distancing markings would be provided in common areas.
  • Nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups would be limited.
  • Staff would monitor arrival and dismissal to discourage congregating.
  • DPS will strongly encourage cloth face coverings, providing personal protective equipment where necessary or available.
  • DPS will update all student care plans and identify alternative learning arrangements or work re-assignments for students and staff self-identified at high risk for severe illness due to COVID-19.

Cleaning and Hygiene

  • DPS will provide adequate supplies to support handwashing and sanitizing, and will teach, reinforce, and monitor them.
  • DPS will establish a schedule for ongoing and routine cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas with EPA-approved cleaning supplies.
  • Common classroom materials would be limited to small groups and disinfected between uses.

Symptom Monitoring and Illness Management

  • Any person entering a school building will receive a symptom screening.
  • Staff or students will be required to stay home if they have tested positive for COVID-19, show symptoms, or have had close contact with a person with COVID-19.
  • Signage will be posted reminding people with symptoms not to enter.
  • Dedicated isolation spaces will be identified in each building for symptomatic individuals.
  • DPS will notify the Durham County Department of Public Health of any confirmed COVID-19 cases.
  • Remote learning options will be provided for students unable to be at school due to illness or exposure.

Plan B for Durham Public Schools: Moderate Social Distancing

In-person Learning for Pre-K Through Eighth Grade and Remote Learning for Ninth Through Twelfth Grades

The State Department of Public Instruction offered multiple suggestions for school districts to consider in implementing their versions of Plan B to reduce the number of students on campus at any one time to 50 percent of campus capacity. Options that other school districts have chosen or are exploring include half-days, rotating days, and rotating weeks. As a middle ground between fully in-person and fully remote instruction, any Plan B presents instructional and logistical challenges. 

DPS has adopted a plan that allows for full in-person learning for our youngest students in pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as other students requiring in-person instruction such as those with IEPs and English learners; a powerful, personalized Ignite Online Academy for pre-K-8 students and educators seeking remote instruction; and a similarly robust online learning program for students in grades 9-12.

Why This Plan?

  • All students, from pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade, greatly benefit from in-person instruction. However, this effect is strongest in our younger, most dependent students. With a majority of DPS’s students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and with working families relying on school support for daily supervision, meals, and instruction, we must take every opportunity to provide in-person instruction if it is safe to do so.
  • Under Plan B, the number of students in school at any one time must be cut by at least 50 percent. Providing remote instruction for high school students frees up high school spaces to be repurposed for middle and elementary students, spreading them out and allowing full-day instruction for them.
  • Remote and online instruction will be significantly improved in the 2020-21 school year.
    • The Durham Public Schools Board of Education has committed to providing every student with a Chromebook laptop and will work with partners to ensure that every student who need it has internet connectivity at home. With this one-to-one device initiative in place, DPS teachers will be able to support and engage our students at home while holding them accountable for new learning.
    • Through Ignite Online Academy, remote students will receive daily, live instruction taught by qualified DPS teachers on a consistent schedule.
    • Supported by Ignite Online Academy, DPS high schools will lead online learning for their students with a combination of live and small group instruction as well as social-emotional, advising, independent learning, and extracurricular activities.

The number of students choosing Ignite Online Academy will affect the extent to which high school spaces will be needed for elementary and middle school instruction.

While the need for daily instruction for our youngest and most vulnerable students drove the choice of this plan, DPS recognizes that our high school students are also vulnerable, and we are continuing to work to identify ways to ensure that they remain engaged and receive socio-emotional support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protecting Our Students and Staff in Plan B

In addition to the social distancing and protective measures from Plan A, Plan B requires the following changes for in-person instruction.

Mass Gatherings

  • DPS will comply with all local and state mandates to reduce capacity in confined indoor and outdoor spaces.
  • We will provide virtual options for all traditional mass gathering events to reduce in-person contact, such as arts events, staff meetings, open houses, and professional learning.
  • When athletic workouts resume, they will be initially limited to outdoor non-contact skill development and conditioning activities. Masks will be required except when breathing would be inhibited, and locker and weight rooms will be closed.

Student Enrollment and Registration

  • Families will be allowed to submit all required documentation, submit free/reduced lunch forms, identify transportation needs, and complete DPS forms entirely online beginning in mid-July.
  • Families needing in-person assistance may do so by appointment.

Illness Prevention and Management

  • All students, staff, and visitors will be screened with a questionnaire and temperature scan before entering a building. A safe and separate health care support room and guidance will be provided for people determined to have been potentially exposed to COVID-19.
  • School nurses will educate staff, family and students; provide daily availability on-site or virtually; and provide case management and referrals to students and staff as needed.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

  • Over the summer, all furniture, wall fixtures, restroom fixtures, restroom tiles and grout, and tile floors and showers will be disinfected. Air filters and ceiling tiles will be replaced. Based on CDC requirements and guidelines, classroom rugs, foam floor mats and other difficult-to-disinfect items and furniture will be removed.
  • Schools will be disinfected daily by custodial staff, with hand sanitizer and CDC-approved disinfecting supplies available in each room.
  • Buses will be disinfected between routes and at the end of each day.
  • Breaks will be scheduled throughout the day for handwashing and disinfecting.
  • Shared classroom materials will be limited and disinfected between use.

Daily Operations

  • Classroom capacities will be reduced to allow for six-foot social distancing.
  • School bus capacities will be reduced by 66 percent.
  • Breakfast and lunch will be served in classrooms for in-person instruction. Food services will be provided at designated distribution sites for remote learners.

Plan C: Fully Remote Learning

If state and local health authorities determine that it is unsafe to reopen DPS campuses, DPS will move to a 100-percent online learning model. As described above in Plan B, there would be significant improvements in online instruction from the previous school year. Through the district’s one-to-one technology initiative, every student will have access to online instruction through a Chromebook and internet connectivity. In addition, DPS has standardized on Canvas as its main Learning Management System, which will support consistent online instruction for all students (while still allowing teachers to use other systems in conjunction with Canvas).

DPS’s investments in devices, support personnel, and training will improve online teaching and learning regardless of the amount of in-person instruction we are able to provide in 2020-21. If DPS is required to enter Plan C, we will work with teachers and administrators to implement the same learning opportunities for all students that we will offer in Plan B through Ignite Online Academy and at our high schools.

Next Steps

  • Durham Public Schools is proud to be partnering with FHI 360 to launch an online social-emotional learning hub with a wealth of resources to help families support their students during this difficult time.
  • DPS is also launching a public community engagement platform that will give families and DPS employees the opportunity to provide feedback on the plan, suggest additional resources to support students and staff, and review supporting information.
  • DPS and its elected leaders will continue to advocate for adequate state funding to support teaching and learning during a time of unprecedented challenges.
  • DPS will continue to work with the Durham County Department of Public Health; the State Department of Public Instruction; other city, county, and state leaders; and local volunteers, businesses, and partners to ensure that our students and staff are safe, healthy, and fully engaged in our ongoing mission:

Durham Public Schools embraces, educates, and empowers every student to innovate, serve, and lead.