On Tuesday, Gov. Cooper urged all 115 school districts across North Carolina to resume in-person learning in grades K-12 this month. He pointed to data and science released recently as promising and safe for students, teachers and staff to return to classrooms: K-5 in Plan A, and middle and high school in Plan B.
“We’ve learned much more about this virus since last March,” Cooper said. “It’s time to get our children back in the classroom.”
The governor clarified that families who do not wish to send students back still can opt for remote learning.
In January, the ABC Science Collaborative presented both international, national and statewide data to the New Hanover County Board of Education. Although data showed North Carolina schools experienced little Covid-19 spread, it was only reflective of six districts in Plan A and 11 districts in Plan B, out of 115 districts — not to mention the numbers were collected from the less severe months of the pandemic. Several local school board members said after the meeting the presentation factored into their decision to postpone the full reopening of elementary schools.
According to the New Hanover County Schools dashboard, the county —which is operating in Plan B — has only reported one cluster, during the week of Oct. 23, at New Hanover High. Monday night the NHC Board of Education is meeting, and will rediscuss Covid-19 and the status of schools.
Brunswick County Schools, which is operating in Plan A, has reported multiple clusters at Town Creek Elementary, Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary, Union Elementary and Leland Middle.
JAMA network — made up of journals from the American Medical Association — published a recent study that followed 11 North Carolina school districts and more than 90,000 students and staff that operated in person for nine weeks.
“During this time, within-school transmissions were very rare (32 infections acquired in schools; 773 community-acquired infections) and there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission,” the report indicated.
The governor and the state’s top health official Dr. Mandy Cohen pushed on the fact that North Carolina has proven there are few reports of clusters in schools and only 11% of total Covid-19 cases coming from the 0-17 age group.
Cohen also pointed to few cases of Covid-19 spread happening from students to teachers, as well as fewer cases of dissemination of the virus attributed to in-classroom learning. Most cases associated with schools, she said, come from close-contact athletics — all of which require touching, breathing heavily, shouting and screaming.
“We do not recommend indoor contact sports like basketball,” Cohen said.
Despite urging schools to reopen, Cooper was clear it did not mean teachers would be vaccinated earlier than their current slot as frontline essential workers. Teachers are in Group 3 and up next in the vaccination queue — though when it will open is still to be determined.
North Carolina has administered more than 1 million vaccinations yet faces supply shortage, much like the whole nation.
According to Cohen, President Biden has informed the state that its supply will increase marginally in coming weeks. As well, the federal pharmacy program will allow Walgreens to begin vaccinating soon, yet it will be only a small batch and for which locations is still unclear.
To further help with vaccination efforts, Cohen added the state is “in conversation with FEMA regional partners, but supply is the biggest problem.”
In order to get kids back in the classrooms safely, Cohen said following the 3-foot social-distance measures for elementary students and 6-foot measures for older middle- and high-schoolers is effective.
“We are encouraging elementary Plan A, middle and high school Plan B,” she explained. “It’s really just about the social-distancing piece. Different patterns of transmissibility exist between elementary school age versus middle and high school. In person should be a part of every [district] going forward, K-12, even though slightly different protocols in social distancing are needed for older students.”
She iterated all students, teachers and staff remain masked at all times, with strict sanitization efforts going into effect across all schools. North Carolina Emergency Management Operations oversees protective equipment and cleaning materials needed in the schools.
“We know school is important for reasons beyond academic instruction,” Cooper said. “For students to get social skills, reliable meals and find their voices. For teachers and administration to identify cases of abuse, hunger, homelessness and other challenges outside of school.”
The state has been working closely with the superintendent of public instruction, Catherine Truitt, as well as with Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education. Both spoke in full support of students returning to the classrooms.
“The hard truth is, even with immediate action, we face a challenging time ahead,” Truitt said, referring to students who were already behind in math and reading proficiency before the pandemic. Many have fallen behind even more since schools closed March 14, 2020.
“This crisis has negatively impacted students’ mental health and academic preparation,” she said. “The most vulnerable students are those most impacted by at-home learning.”
“A return five days a week may be challenging, but we must face it head-on,” she iterated.
Davis added: “The science is clear: It’s safe to open our schools in accordance with health protocols.”
Cooper will not be signing any executive orders requiring schools to open, but is leaving the decisions in each district’s hands. “We are giving them public health guidance to let them make the decisions,” he said.
Over the last week, Covid-19 numbers in North Carolina have seen a downward trend in cases and hospitalizations, as compared to previous numbers over the last few months. If numbers reverse and begin to rise again, Cooper said he would re-evaluate what’s best for public safety.
“We know health advice and science can change,” he said. “I’ll be ready to do whatever I need to do for the state, after taking advice and data from health experts.”
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has a K-12 StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit that will advise districts how to move forward. Cohen also urged districts to reach out with questions and guidance as need be.
As well, Center for Disease Control and Prevention has an updated Considerations for Schools report, which instructs schools how to follow safety precautions among teachers, staff, students, families and communities. The report goes into detail in:
- Promoting behaviors that reduce Covid-19’s spread
- Maintaining healthy environments
- Maintaining healthy operations
- Preparing for when someone gets sick
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