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Competing sides remain divided over details of school reopening

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Image: Adobe Stock

State Board of Ed weighs in as vetoed Senate bill remains in limbo

As state Democrats and Republicans push to reopen schools for in-person instruction, they appear as divided as ever over how to achieve the common goal.

The parties are fighting over Senate Bill 37 [2], which would require all public school districts to provide an in-person learning option. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill Feb. 26. Senate leaders have indicated they will bring the measure back for another vote, after that chamber failed by a slim margin to override the veto on March 1.

The bill is currently assigned to the Senate Rules Committee. The House has yet to take an override vote.

In explaining his veto, Cooper said that while he strongly supports reopening schools, SB 37 failed to do so properly because it “allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NCDHHS and CDC guidelines on social distancing” and “removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools.”

Cooper has also noted that 91 of the state’s 115 school districts have already returned to in-person learning.

Republicans supporters of the bill have decried the veto. They said that Cooper acted at the behest of “teacher union bosses.” The North Carolina Association of Educators opposed the bill, saying its members also favor reopening schools, but only under conditions that are safe for all.

On Thursday, the issue took center stage at a State Board of Education meeting where the board adopted a resolution [3] stating that all school districts “should” provide students with an in-person learning option.

The board married the resolution to new NC Department of Health and Human Services guidance [4] that directs districts to use remote learning options only for “higher-risk students and for families opting for remote learning for their children.”

But even as the state board and the NCDHHS moved toward the common goal of returning children to classrooms, the divide over how and when schools should reopen and seemed to widen.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, partnered with the state board of education to issue the school reopening resolution. She voiced frustration over NCDHHS guidance that warns against older students fully returning to schools for in-person instruction.

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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Truitt read a message from a rural superintendent who shared that only one of 900 school employees was out of work after a positive COVID-19 test; six of 5,700 students in that district were out of school after positive tests.

“And yet, half of his secondary students are sitting at home,” Truitt said. “For me, the math is just not adding up.”

New NCDHHS guidance recommends that students in grades 6-12 return to school for in-person instruction under the state’s Plan B, which requires at least 6 feet of social distancing. The guidance recommends that younger children attend school in-person five days a week observing 3 feet of social distancing. Health experts say younger children aren’t significant spreaders of the virus.

To achieve the social distancing requirement for older students, districts use a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning. Students are divided into two cohorts; each cohort is brought to campus two days a week. Districts have used Wednesday as a cleaning day while each cohort learns remotely.

Truitt asked officials presenting the updated NCDHHS guidance to share benchmarks that would need to be met in order for older students to attend school five days a week — while observing the 3-foot social distancing requirement.

“I think DHHS owes it to our parents, our teachers and our students to make clear when it will be acceptable for all children to be in school five days a week,” Truitt said.

She said the state keeps “kicking the can down the street” when it comes to definitive guidance about when students can return to classrooms.

“It just continues to be an exercise in frustration for our local superintendents to continue to have Toolkit [StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit] [6] updates and guidance issued that really doesn’t change anything,” Truitt said. “It’s time for you all to put a stake in the ground and say this is what needs to happen for kids to be back in school.”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, said the impact of keeping children out of school will last for generations.

“COVID is creating death, but not getting kids back in school is creating poverty and illiteracy, which you know if you have my background, will take generations to overcome, and we can’t be on the wrong side of history on that,” Folwell said.

Keeping students from in-person learning also affects parents who can’t work because their kids are home learning remotely, Folwell said.

“It’s not just the poverty and illiteracy this is creating, it’s the other unintended consequence of the fact that when the child is not in school, the parent can’t get back to work,” Folwell said.

State board members were surprised that neither state health officials nor school districts are keeping tabs on teachers receiving vaccinations. Teachers began getting shots on Feb. 24 after Cooper moved them up in the state vaccination schedule.

“That seems like such a gap in what we’re doing, reporting,” said SBE member Olivia Oxendine.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis said neither the N.C. Department of Public Instruction nor the state board has issued a requirement for districts to collect vaccination data.

State Health Director Betsey Tilson said teacher vaccinations fall under the category of personal health information. “There is that issue around privacy,” Tilson said.

SBE member Amy White noted that she can’t find data on the state dashboard that shows COVID-19-related deaths for children 0-17.

“It would be interesting to know whether your recommendations are coming from preventing death in students 0-17, preventing infection or hospitalization,” White said. “What is it exactly that we’re looking for?’

Tilson responded that there have only been two or three pediatric deaths in North Carolina due to COVID-19.

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State Health Director Betsey Tilson

“That death rate, for sure, is very low among our pediatric population but we do know that there is some risk of hospitalization for children with some underlying medical conditions, there are things that put children at higher risk of hospitalization but overall, it is quite low in our pediatric population,” Tilson said.

The rate of spread is also lower among younger children, Tilson said.

“Some of it is preventing that spread, especially in our older kids and helping to prevent spread in the community as well,” Tilson said.

Health officials announced an expansive new COVID-19 testing program Thursday that will provide regular testing to staffs of traditional public schools and charter schools who request it.

Districts and charters will have two testing options. They can choose to test educators and staff who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms at school or have recent known close contact to a person with COVID-19. They can also routinely test all K-12 staff using rapid tests.