School districts in counties where the threat of coronavirus infection is low should be allowed to operate differently than those in counties where the threat is greater, says Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
That line of thinking led the Republican gubernatorial candidate to cast the lone vote Thursday against the state Department of Public Instruction’s operational guidelines to help school districts reopen based on safety recommendations from the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
DHHS developed the guidelines to keep students and school staff safe and to prevent the spread of the virus when they return to classrooms.
Forest told State Board of Education colleagues that he couldn’t vote in favor of the plan because he opposes the DHHS’s universal approach that requires school districts to reopen under the same safety plan, even if the coronavirus threat differs.
“Obviously, there are counties that probably have no active cases right now and you’re going to say they have to operate on the same plan as counties that have tougher issues that they’re dealing with,” Forest said.
The DHHS COVID-19 North Carolina Dashboard  currently reports cases in all 100 counties, though it does not specify whether those are all active at present. In a handful of counties, the numbers are very small.
Overall, the number of cases, deaths and current hospitalizations continues to rise. Yesterday, the state reported 1,310 new cases, which is the second largest number for any date since the pandemic commenced, and 812 hospitalizations, which is the highest for any date. The death tally in North Carolina has climbed above 1,000 and includes a Durham second- grader who last week became the first K-12 student in the state to die from the virus.
It should also be noted that a person who tests positive for the coronavirus today likely contracted it some time earlier. The median incubation period is 4 to 5 days according to the CDC, but can last up to two weeks. Public health experts have also frequently warned that the virus does not respect county or state borders — especially where individuals cross those lines on a regular basis.
On Monday, DHHS released guidelines  instructing schools to design three reopening plans:
- Plan A would incorporate minimal social distancing.
- Plan B calls for moderate social distancing and limiting building and school buses to 50% of capacity.
- Plan C calls for students to remain home for remote learning.
Forest asked for an explanation of how state agencies and the governor will choose the reopening protocol, if the schools do so in mid-August as planned.
“I’m really very curious about what the specific metrics are; not a broad brush of the case going up or hospitals in certain communities being at a certain capacity,” Forest said. “We’re talking about the whole state here.”
Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of DHHS, said several benchmarks would be used, including the number of hospitalizations, new cases of infection, similar to those that officials have been weighed to determine whether to reopen the state.
“I would defer that question [DHHS] Secretary [Mandy] Cohen and the public health team for further follow up, but generally speaking there’s no one metric or one set number at which those levels are being determined,” Perry said. “It’s looking at those metrics in combination.”
Perry’s answer didn’t satisfy Forest.
“I think that’s a pretty critical question,” Forest said. “We’re asking today to vote on recommendations for the entire state, but nobody seems to know what the goal line is here, what we’re trying to accomplish doing this ultimately.”
Perry said a decision will be made by July 1 on the plan chosen to reopen schools.
“That decision will be made for the entire state,” Perry said. “There is the potential that it could be made for a region if the metrics indicate a good rationale for doing so,” Perry said. “So, far the metrics are not suggesting that. It would not be a decision made district-by district level.”
Perry said the goal is to reopen schools under Plan A with all students in school and minimal social distancing.
For that to happen, it would take a “concerted effort across the state” working to lower the rate of infections by wearing face coverings, washing hands frequently and remaining six feet apart in public, she said.
Forest had no problem with the basic safety guidance recommended by DHHS and the operational guidance in state school officials’ “Lighting Our Way Forward: North Carolina’s Guidebook for Reopening Public Schools,”  which was presented Thursday.
But he said more information is needed about how reopening will be decided.
“I think our school districts deserve to know that as well, as well as our superintendents, as well as our parents,” Forest said.
SBE member Amy White voted for the DPI guidance shared Thursday but joined Forest in expressing concern about the metrics health and education officials will use to determine how students re-enter school.
White said the mortality rate has tracked evenly with the contagion cases and that it hasn’t seen a “significant degree of increase.” The state’s overall rate is around 2.7 to 2.8%. Click here  to see a comparison of deaths to infections in North Carolina.
“About three-fifths of the deaths in our state are coming from congregant care, and so, I have a concern about how the metrics are being applied,” White said. “I know that’s not a popular opinion.”
Young children and masks
White noted that she works with students in grades 1-3 at the nonprofit she runs, Community Hope Ministries in Raleigh. She said the state guidance and recommendations place a lot of responsibility on young students and teachers.
“What happens when Johnny says ‘I can’t find my face covering, I can’t find my mask?’” White asked. “Is it the school’s responsibility to provide another one?”
The NCDHHS strongly recommends face coverings for students and school staff but they are not a requirement, Perry said, adding that the SBE or a school district could adopt a policy requiring face masks.
“We do have concern that there are some individuals for whom the wearing of face masks will not be possible, and we are currently during a scan of all other states and how they are handling requirement versus recommended face covering, which as you know is an effective tool for mitigating spread,” Perry said.
White said elementary school teachers will have a tough job keeping students without masks separated from the others, as well as making sure their hands are clean.
“I’m thinking how he or she is going to manage all of that and teach at the same time,” White said. I’ll vote for the plan because I think we must have one. An enormous amount of thought went into this one but whether or not its workable is yet to be determined.”
Meanwhile, many parents fear that the reopening of North Carolina’s schools could jeopardize children at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Cheneta Jones, a Wake County charter school parent, is concerned about an outbreak at the school her son attends. Jones said her son is on the autism spectrum and found the transition from in-person schooling to remote learning difficult. She said he’s also having a tough time with the idea of moving to the next grade.
“To add to that, the precautions that will be in place will put added pressure on him,” Jones said. “As a parent, I’m not sure if it will work for him.”
Jones said she and her husband will consider continuing remote learning.
Several school districts across the state will offer remote learning for parents and students who feel uncomfortable returning to school buildings.
On Monday, the Cumberland County Board of Education unanimously approved a new “Virtual Academy” that would allow students to continue to learn from home, pending SBE approval.
“The approval from our school board was the first step in the process to move forward with opening a virtual school in CCS,” said Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. “The district will share additional information with families regarding the application process and timeline. Plans are for the virtual school to open to students on August 17.”
The Durham Public Schools Board of Education approved a similar remote learning program on Wednesday.
Although the Cumberland County board said its “Virtual Academy” will be offered pending state approval, SBE Chairman Eric Davis told Policy Watch he didn’t thinks the board’s approval is needed.
“That just shows how our districts are being responsive to the needs of our students and the opportunity that technology presents,” Davis said.
Davis said the board has also heard from parents worried about school buildings not being reopened in the fall. “One of the reasons is to help parents get back to work,” Davis said.
But DHHS’s guidance and DPI’s operational recommendations shared Thursday could assuage those fears. “What we released today, we hope will go a long way toward filling that void, showing that we’re working on different scenarios,” Davis said.
If schools are forced to continue remote learning, Nicole Parker, a DPS parent, said it must be a quality experience for all children. That was not the case in mid-March, Parker said, when Gov. Cooper closed school buildings and districts began to offer remote learning.
“Some schools were more structure than others,” said Parker, a mother of three, including a daughter who graduated high school on Thursday. “If they’re going to stay home, then everyone has to be on the same page.”
Jess Badger-Rotenberg, a Wake County mother of two, worries that not enough is known about the virus.
“If we open schools, then what?” said Badger-Rotenberg, who has a degree in microbiology. “We don’t know what happens after that, how bad it could get. It’s hard to make informed decisions when you don’t have all of the data.”
Badger-Rotenburg said she would welcome a plan that calls for her children to go to school a half-day, once a week to pick up assignments to work on from home. “That way, they wouldn’t be as exposed [to contracting the virus] like they would be by going to school every day,” she said.
While such a proposal would work for her, Badger-Rotenburg said she knows it would not for parents who cannot work from home.
“My major concern is other parents and the fact that they need to work,” she said. “Our school system is so important to the ability of our society to function. I can be home with my kids, so if that’s what I need to do, I’m OK with that if it allows other kids to be in the building safely.”