WRAL Investigates

Health screenings, smaller classes, alternate days are options as schools prepare for return amid pandemic

Posted May 20, 2020 4:15 p.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2020 7:04 p.m. EDT

The annual back-to-school frenzy and first-day jitters will be magnified when the school year starts in the fall. Education officials have been saying for weeks the next school year will look and feel different.

To get a better idea of what parents, students and staff can expect, WRAL Investigates sat down with Mark Johnson, superintendent of public instruction for North Carolina.

"I’m very confident that we will have students in school buildings in the fall. What we are working on right now, however, is what that will look like," Johnson said.

Johnson, who’s not running for re-election, faces an unprecedented puzzle in his final months on the job. "These are huge challenges," he said.

The challenges include safety and technology. Johnson says online learning will be part of the curriculum "in some form or fashion. We need people to be prepared." The Department of Public Instruction formed a task force to improve online learning for next school year. The goal is to create a program that’s much more thorough than the online work students have been doing throughout the spring.

Johnson says smaller class sizes and alternate days are also likely. "Do some students come in on Mondays and Tuesdays, and then they remote learn on Wednesdays and Thursdays and then other students switch out?"

The superintendent expects teachers and students who don’t feel safe returning, especially those at higher risk of infection, will be given options to work from home. He also says teachers and students should expect to be screened every day when they come to school. People may also be required to wear masks.

And what about sports? "That’s something we’re going to have to look to the health department for, what is realistic. I very much hope we see school sports in the fall even if you don’t have people in the stands," said Johnson.

While many questions are still unanswered about how schools will operate, schools are spending money to get ready.

On a state bidding website, Western Carolina University is purchasing 15,000 thermometers and lots of hand sanitizer. The Onslow County school system is buying two dozen Clorox electrostatic sprayers in the effort to curtail coronavirus.

Universities told WRAL News they hope to have more answers about the fall semester around the start of June. Campbell University already announced students will have their own rooms and bathrooms.

With no time frame for a COVID-19 vaccination, schools and students will need to adapt to live with the virus. Johnson hopes to make it as easy as possible for everyone. "We are going to reopen schools in the fall, but it is going to come with challenges," he said.

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