North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper directed school districts Tuesday to reopen schools with a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning for the state’s 1.5 million public school students.
The approach chosen by Cooper is Plan B from among three that districts were asked to prepare for when developing reopening plans.
“It’s a measured, balanced approach that will allow children to attend [schools] but provide important safety protocols like fewer children in the classroom, social distancing, face coverings, [frequent] cleaning and more,” Cooper said.
Districts also have the option to provide remote-only instruction – Plan C – if school leaders determine that’s best for their community. Districts operating under Plan B are also encouraged to provide remote-only learning opportunities for families afraid to return to schools for in-person instruction before a vaccine is developed for the coronavirus.
Plan A was the least restrictive of the three being considered. It called for schools to fully reopen with daily temperature and screening checks before students and staff members entered buildings.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson said he’d like to see a plan that gives district’s more control over how they reopen.
“While I am glad Gov. Cooper provided more flexibility by lifting the 50% occupancy limits on schools, I would prefer we go further with a plan that is built around local control to facilitate greater flexibility for communities based on their metrics,” Johnson said in a statement.
Cooper stressed that face coverings will be required for teachers, staff and students from kindergarten through high school.
“The studies have shown overwhelmingly that face coverings reduce disease transmission,” Cooper said.
The state will provide at least five reusable face coverings for each student, teacher and staff member, he said.
Schools will be required to limit the number of people allowed in buildings to observe the proper six feet of social distancing recommended by health officials.
“Districts and schools can use a plan that works for them whether it’s alternating days or weeks or some other strategy,” Cooper said.
Schools will also be required to screen students and staff for symptoms each day. And the bell schedule must allow time for frequent handwashing.
Cooper’s decision for a hybrid of in-school and remote learning comes as North Carolina continues to see troubling data for the coronavirus.
At least 89,484 people in North Carolina have tested positive for the virus and 1,552 have died, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). And more than 1,100 people are in the hospital recovering from the virus.
“Our case numbers continue to trend upward,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. “The percent of tests that are positive remains level but higher than I’d like. North Carolina’s trajectory of hospitalizations has continued to tick upward but we still have capacity.”
Cohen said North Carolina continues to “simmer” but has avoided “boiling over” like many states are now doing with huge spikes in coronavirus cases.
“We will continue to watch our trends closely,” Cohen said. “If we see indications that we are changing quickly or there’s new scientific data that emerges, we will not hesitate to act.”
She noted that the scientific evidence available today shows that children are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 and get less severe illnesses than adults.
“Importantly, children who have COVID-19 are also less likely to spread it to others, even in school or a group setting,” Cohen said. “This particularly evident in younger, elementary-aged children.”
State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said the state’s schools have received more than $390 million over the past few months in COVID-19 relief funds, but more is needed to provide schools with the resources that will be required to keep students and staff members safe.
“Our school’s needs far exceed this funding,” Davis said. “While we will continue to work with the General Assembly for additional state funding, the federal government, with its vast resources, must also step up and close the gap between decreasing state revenues and the increase in supports needed to keep our students and teachers safe throughout the year.”
Social media has been abuzz with teachers, particularly those with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting the virus and/or more likely fare poorly once infected, worried about what happens to them and their students if there is outbreak of the contagious and deadly virus in a school.
Teachers also worry about whether there will be adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep staff and students safe.
Many of the state’s larger school districts have already announced reopening plans. Most reflect the hybrid approach announced Tuesday by Cooper. And several have created new virtual academies for families afraid to return to schools for in-person instruction.
The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), for example, announced plans earlier this month that will have students attending in-person school part time and learning from home part-time.
The district plans to break its nearly 162,000 students in to three groups. The students would spend one week receiving in-person instruction, then return home for two weeks of remote learning.
WCPSS has received more than 18,000 applications for its new Wake Virtual Academy.
In Durham, reopening plans call for in-person instruction for pre-K through eighth-grade students.
High school students will receive online instruction so the district can use high school facilities to reduce the number of students in elementary schools and middle schools.
Davis said all districts will provide a remote option for families uncomfortable about returning to school for in-person instruction.
“While we do not know what events await us in the coming year, or beyond, we do know that we are made of the same mettle as previous generations who overcame war, economic depression and plagues,” Davis said. “We North Carolinians do our finest work at the most uncertain and challenging times.”