As new school year approaches, NC officials can't agree on how to keep students safe

Posted July 7, 2020 7:48 p.m. EDT
Updated July 8, 2020 8:07 p.m. EDT

— With the planned start to the school year less than six weeks off, state leaders are still debating how best to keep students healthy during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The issue isn't partisan, either, with members of the same party far apart on what safety measures schools should take.

For example, when lawmakers set Aug. 17 as the start date for the school year, the legislation also said schools could not use remote learning for the first week. But many school districts, including the Wake County Public School System, are putting plans in place to rotate groups of students between in-person and remote learning to reduce the number of students in schools at any given time.

Under the law as it now stands, a rotation wouldn't be allowed for the first week, and all students would be required to be in school.

Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell, was pushing to change that on Tuesday.

"We need to have in legislation the flexibility for a school system, if it is impacting the safety and health of the students, with the approval of the State Board of Education, to be able to do remote learning in those first five days," Fraley told his colleagues.

So far, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has refused to agree to such a change.

"We've repeatedly stated that the science shows that students should be back in school, and we want to see that happen," Berger spokeswoman Lauren Horsch said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is pushing for more precautions for students.

Johnson sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday to ask why state health officials have revised their guidelines to allow elementary school students to ride buses with little social distancing and no mask requirements.

"Now, instead of one student every six feet in an enclosed school bus, there could be at least one child in every seat, putting students only one to two feet apart," Johnson wrote in the letter. "While I support efforts to overcome the challenges associated with transportation, this revision now places elementary students very close together for prolonged periods of time in enclosed spaces without face coverings."

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, responded Wednesday by noting that the updated requirements call for everyone, including elementary school students, to wear masks on school buses.

The changes were made after DPI and the State Board of Education heard from school administrators that enforcing 6 feet of separation between every student on a bus would reduce their capacity from 72 to eight, Cohen said.

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