Education

Cooper: Some businesses must remain closed so schools can begin to reopen

Posted July 13
Updated July 15

— Public schools across North Carolina can reopen next month with limited attendance and continued online instruction as the state continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday.

Additionally, Cooper said he plans to keep the state in "Phase 2" of a three-part plan to reopen businesses and resume social activities during the pandemic for at least three more weeks as the number of infections and hospitalizations continue to climb.

"We know there will always be some risk with in-person learning, and we're doing a lot to reduce that risk," the governor said during an afternoon news conference. "As pediatricians and other health experts tell us, there is much risk in not going back to in-person school."

Many students rely on schools for meals and daily stability, he said, and the interaction with teachers and other students helps children grow.

School districts must provide online options for students who cannot return to class because they are at higher risk for health complications from the virus or who chose not to return out of concern for their safety. Districts also can choose to continue with online learning for everyone, as schools statewide have done since mid-March.

All students and staff, including kindergartners and elementary school students, must wear masks and undergo daily health screenings if they are in school, Cooper said. The state will provide each student, teacher and staffer with at least five reusable masks.

The number of students in schools must be limited so social distancing can be achieved, and districts can choose to alternate days or weeks when particular students are in class, Cooper said. Schools also are encouraged to work on other ways to improve social distancing, such as one-way hallways and suspending activities that bring large numbers of students together, he said.

The Wake County Public School System, for example, plans to divide students into three groups that will rotate through one week of class at school and two weeks of online instruction at home. Durham Public Schools plans to have all high school students learn online to free up space so elementary school and middle school students can be spread out more for all in-person instruction.

Cooper said extra time will be built into the daily schedule for frequent hand washing, and regular cleaning of classrooms, buses and other areas will be required.

State officials also have issued extensive protocols to districts to handle any student or staffer who shows symptoms of COVID-19.

"We know schools will look a lot different this year. They have to in order to be safe and effective," Cooper said.

The state's coronavirus caseload has ballooned by 34 percent since the beginning of July, hospitalizations remain at record highs and the number of deaths from the virus have topped 1,500.

"If trends spike and in-person school cannot be done safely even with these safety protocols, then North Carolina will have to move to all remote learning, like we did last March," he said. "There are no decisions more important than the ones about our children and our schools."

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said research has shown that children are less likely to be infected and are less likely to spread the virus to others. Schools haven't played a role in infection outbreaks anywhere worldwide, she said.

"While the emerging evidence shows that school is a lower-risk setting, we need to reduce risks for students, teachers and staff even further," Cohen said. "We ... know the new measures we're requiring of schools will not be easy to comply with."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said he supports many aspects of the guidelines but called for more local flexibility.

"I want us to ensure that students and educators who want to safely return to in-person learning have that opportunity while schools also provide high-quality alternatives for students and teachers who may not yet feel comfortable returning to classrooms," Johnson said in a statement. "While I am glad Governor Cooper provided more flexibility by lifting the 50 percent 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."

Phase 2 remains in effect

Cooper moved North Carolina into Phase 2 of reopening on May 22, allowing some businesses to reopen at half capacity if they followed strict sanitary protocols.

The phase was supposed to last five weeks, but he extended it for three weeks in late June because of an accelerating number of infections and hospitalizations. That three-week period was to have ended Friday evening, but Phase 2 will now continue until at least Aug. 7.

"Our numbers are still troubling, and they could jump higher in the blink of an eye," he said. "Easing restrictions now to allow more high-transmission activities could cause a spike that would threaten our ability to open schools. The most important opening is that of our classroom doors."

Businesses that weren't included in the Phase 2 reopening have challenged the restrictions in court, and state lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to undo Cooper's shutdown orders for bars, gyms and other businesses.

"We can be just as careful and just as safe as any of the other bars that are open," said Jack Cozort, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Bars and Taverns Association, noting that 85 percent of the bars across North Carolina are already open because they are tied to restaurants, breweries and similar establishments. "We can enforce social distancing, we can require masks, and we can do the other things that DHHS is now requiring of the other bars that are open."

But Sean Umstead, co-owner of Kingfisher Cocktail Bar in Durham, said he recognizes that bars have sparked viral outbreaks in other states, so North Carolina officials need to tread carefully.

"We respect this decision. Choosing the health of the citizens of North Carolina is the right one," Umstead said. "Bars as a whole seem to be – the science is pretty clear that they are a place that doesn't get us to the end goal, which is to flatten this curve and get us through this pandemic."

More avenues are needed for bars to survive, such as allowing them to serve cocktails to go, he said.

Gyms also are trying new ways to generate revenue. CycleBar in Cary, for example, is offering online classes and is looking at setting up some outdoor exercise options to generate revenue, co-owner Delvin Burton said.

"I did not set out at the beginning of this year anticipating a four-month closure," Burton said. "I don't think anyone builds that into their budget."

Republican legislative leaders quickly blasted Cooper's decisions.

"Instead of taking a local approach to economic closures and prioritizing North Carolina's vulnerable populations, this administration has inconsistently shuttered thousands of small businesses statewide and failed to implement a comprehensive plan to protect nursing homes," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement. "I urge the governor to present a workable, comprehensive plan for our schools, our economy and vulnerable senior citizens that recognizes the failures of his current scattershot approach and provides real opportunities for our state to move forward."

"Gov. Cooper’s plan gets students halfway to where they need to be. But much like jumping over a creek, halfway doesn’t cut it," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. "The Governor permits parents to choose full remote learning. He must also permit parents to choose full in-person learning as well."

WRAL anchor/reporter Debra Morgan contributed to this report.