Back in Session: Gov. Cooper Gives Elementary Schools Option to Reopen

A NC counselor gives advice for high schoolers on enduring the coronavirus-era virtual classroom. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By jenniferbringle

September 17, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that K-5 schools could reopen in October, but final decisions are left up to local school boards.

Elementary school students in North Carolina could return to regular in-person learning as early as Oct. 5. 

That’s the latest from NC Gov. Roy Cooper, who made the announcement that the state will allow K-5 students to return to the classroom under what’s considered Plan A during a COVID-19 press conference Thursday afternoon.

Plan A requires “minimal social distancing” and no capacity limits on campus. Schools will still require students and staff to wear masks and pass daily temperature checks and health screenings. Cooper credited the use of masks in helping stabilize the state’s COVID-19 numbers enough to make this decision.

“We’re able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled-down on our safety and prevention measures and helped us lower our numbers,” Cooper said. “I’m proud of our work to get to this point.”

The change, however, doesn’t require the state’s elementary schools to bring younger children back into school buildings, but rather gives the state’s 115 public school districts the option to do so if they wish. 

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The announcement comes on the heels of pressure to reopen schools from Republican state legislators and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper’s Republican opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial election. But Cooper said he wasn’t making the change for political reasons, but rather the decision has been in the works for weeks with input from NC State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis.

“Our number one priority from the get-go was getting our children back in the classroom,” Cooper said. “We know the benefits of in-person learning.”

NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the decision also came from her team assessing the science around COVID-19, which she said is increasingly pointing to lower rates of infection among younger children.

“Evolving science is currently showing younger children are less likely to become infected, have less symptoms and are less likely to spread the virus to others,” Cohen said.

The science on that point is less than settled at this point, however. The CDC recently published a study that found children who contracted the novel coronavirus at two Utah child care centers passed it on to family members, leading to one parent’s hospitalizations. 

Cohen did say that every family needs to decide what’s best for them, in-person or virtual education.

According to World Health Organization recommendations, states should maintain a positive COVID-19 rate under 5% for two consecutive weeks before fully reopening. North Carolina is currently at a 5.6% positive rate with 1,552 new cases of the virus reported since yesterday, according to data provided by NC DHHS. But Cohen said the numbers are moving in the right direction to make this decision safe.

“We are now seeing days where we are meeting that goal,” she said. “This is an encouraging sign that the steps we’re taking to prevent viral transmission in our communities are working.”

Virtual Start to School Year

Cooper had said in July that the state would use a three-pronged approach to allowing children back into classrooms. He started the school year be giving individual school districts the choice between the more restrictive approaches, Plans B and C. 

At the start of the school year, the majority of school districts opened with Plan C—virtual learning—with a few opting into Plan B, which allows for a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Since then, there have been many complaints about the efficacy of virtual learning, particularly with younger students.

“Of all the disruptions COVID-19 has created, education is the most challenging to address,” Cooper said. “As the school year started, parents were facing difficult choices and performing a nearly impossible balancing act.”

Cooper emphasized that for those who are not comfortable with returning to an in-person model, virtual options should still be available.

“Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts or every family,” he said. “The opportunity for remote learning needs to be available for families that choose them.”

While this is a major step, Cooper said that the inclusion of students in grades 6 through 12 will hinge on continued stabilization or dropping COVID-19 numbers. He emphasized the mask mandate as the key to getting all North Carolina students back to in-person learning sooner.

“The more people wear masks and act responsibly, the more we slow the spread of this virus, and the more children we can get into our schools,” he said.


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