Though Gov. Roy Cooper encourages school districts across 100 N.C. counties to return students to in-person classrooms, he said in a press briefing Thursday that he does not support a piece of legislation sitting on his desk that would require districts to take that action.
North Carolina is currently allowing public elementary schools to open at full capacity with minimal social distancing under Plan A or at reduced capacity with mandated 6-foot distancing under Plan B. Middle and high schools may only operate under Plan B.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen previously explained that transmission rates vary based on age groups and older students require strict protocols.
This week Senate Bill 37 passed the N.C. General Assembly and was presented to the governor. The legislation would require that schools offer in-person instruction – an action Cooper has advocated for in news conferences over the past few weeks.
In his most recent media briefing, the governor said Senate Bill 37 fails in some ways and he wants to discuss potential changes with assembly leaders before moving forward.
Specifically, he said the bill should follow the NCDHHS guidance and not place middle- and high-school students in classrooms with little spacing. The bill would allow grades 6-12 to operate with minimal social distancing under Plan A.
The current legislation would also prevent state and local officials from returning to remote instruction in the case of an emergency, Cooper explained.
“Suppose this variant causes significant problems and you have in the legislation that students still have to be in person in the classroom, and you take away the authority of state and local officials to be able to respond,” Cooper argued.
The Democratic governor said he can sign the bill if those two changes are addressed, adding, “I would hope that they could send another piece of legislation or just let this run its course because I think most of the local school boards are taking action.”
After the governor called on school districts to resume face-to-face instruction Feb. 2, the New Hanover County school board voted to allow elementary schools to reopen five days a week starting March 8. It will be almost a year since Cooper ordered all K-12 schools to close, back when North Carolina had just 24 confirmed cases of Covid-19. At the time the closure was only slated for two weeks.
As of Thursday, Feb. 18, 91 of the state’s 115 school districts have resumed in-person learning. By mid-March, 95% of districts intend on offering face-to-face classes, meaning up to 96% of North Carolina public school students will be in physical classrooms.
Families also have the option to enroll their children 100% in remote learning.
The governor has repeatedly stated schools can open safely before educators are vaccinated. However, teachers and staff may start lining up for shots as soon as Feb. 24.
On March 10, the queue will open up to other frontline essential workers. The state has yet to make any decisions about whether it will further divide Group 3 into subgroups, with certain professions prioritized over others.
At this time people 65 and older and health care workers are eligible for the vaccines.
In total, nearly 2 million allocations have been distributed. Cooper also noted Thursday that equity efforts to distribute vaccines to historically marginalized communities are progressing.
As of last week, close to a quarter of first doses were administered to Black North Carolinians. Five weeks ago, just 13% of the Black population were receiving vaccines.
Overall the Covid-19 numbers are improving in North Carolina. As of Thursday there are 1,892 people hospitalized. It’s the first time since late November that number has fallen below 2,000.
Cases and the percent positivity rate are also dropping. Still, the governor said both trends are higher than he prefers.
As health officials track trends, the state is reconsidering its current restrictions, such as gathering sizes, occupancy limits at businesses and the stay-at-home order that’s set to expire Feb. 28. The governor indicated there will be an announcement regarding changes next week.
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