Education

Cooper: NC elementary schools can bring students back next month

Posted September 17, 2020 1:40 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2020 11:17 a.m. EDT

— Children in kindergarten through fifth grade could return to in-person learning in early October, if their school system agrees to it, under a plan Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday.

The move is an option for public school systems across North Carolina, not a mandate, and would be available starting Oct. 5, Cooper said. Middle- and high-school students cannot yet return to class, he said.

"Plan A [in-person classes] may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family. Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it, and districts will have the flexibility to select a plan based on their unique situation," he said.

All elementary school students and staff will be required to wear masks, and schools will have to follow social distancing, health screening and sanitation regulations, but there will be no restriction on the number of students in classrooms.

"We're able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention efforts and stabilized our [coronavirus case] numbers. The science of lower viral spread among younger children also backs up our decision," Cooper said.

Ten coronavirus clusters have been reported in schools across North Carolina during the past month, involving 16 students and 46 staffers, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The number of school-age children infected with the virus has declined over the last two weeks, she said, and the trend is "particularly strong among our younger, elementary school children."

Many school districts statewide have been conducting all classes online since the new school year started last month, while others use a mix of in-person instruction at reduced capacities and remote learning.​

Cooper set the hybrid model as the state's baseline in July, saying districts could choose a more restrictive option of online-only classes but couldn't be more lenient and return to full-time, in-person classes.

Cohen said no clear differences in community spread of the virus have been found between districts that are using a hybrid system and those that are completely online.

The decision to prohibit schools from a complete opening at the start of the school year sparked criticism from Republican leaders, including Cooper's opponent in the upcoming election, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who said parents need to have the option of sending their children to school.

"This announcement from Gov. Cooper is a step in the right direction, but he needs to provide all parents with the option of full-time, in-person instruction," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. "We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on science. What is the science that says it's safe for fifth-graders to be in school full time, but it's not safe for sixth-graders?"

"It does not need to be this complicated," Forest said in a statement. "Private schools in North Carolina have already figured out how to reopen safely. So have a majority of other states. It’s time to reopen all of our schools to give parents the option of in-person learning – now."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said he hopes North Carolina will soon move completely to in-person classes, saying it's already safe to do so. He added he didn't agree with Cooper's decision to limit it to elementary schools.

"I'm ready for every student to have the opportunity to go back to school if they are ready. If not, stay home with remote learning," Johnson said. "Now, it's incumbent upon local school boards to go ahead and start making those plans."

Cooper said he wants to reopen all schools as soon as possible, but safety comes first. In the meantime, he said, he wants districts to have options.

Shifting elementary schools to in-person classes offers more benefits for students and lower risks of spreading the virus, Cohen said.

"Studies show that there seems to be less viral transmission from children back to their households or from children to other children that they are around," she said. "Again, less likely, but it doesn't mean we eliminate the risk. That is exactly why, no matter what plan a district chooses to move forward with, there are strong safety protocols."

The North Carolina Association of Educators was skeptical of the move, however, expressing fears for the health of teachers.

"Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger," NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement. "Maintaining a minimum 6-foot social distance at all times is a critical safety measure for both educators and students, and we will not recommend for any educator to enter a non-distancing classroom without a properly fitted N-95 mask to protect their health and the health of everyone around them."

Cooper said he won't hesitate to pull back from in-person classes if virus cases start to spike.

Some districts, including those in Wake and Johnston counties, are looking to start bringing students into school, while Cumberland County officials decided Thursday to remain online-only for the rest of the semester.

Keith Sutton, chairman of the Wake County Board of Education, called Cooper's announcement "welcome news" but said no decision has been made about having elementary schools return to in-person instruction full time. Transportation is just one of the issues that need to be ironed out first, he noted.

The school board has a working session planned for next week, and a decision will be made in the next two weeks, Sutton said.

"They have been extremely cautious in all decisions during this pandemic. We should all feel comfortable with returning to schools given this announcement," Kelly Mann, of Wake County Families to Safely Reopen Schools, said of Cooper's actions during the pandemic. "I feel confident Wake County schools can work together with parents and the community to return our children to the classrooms in early October."

WRAL anchor/reporters Sloane Heffernan and Debra Morgan contributed to this report.