Calling it a tough decision, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday that schools will remain closed throughout the rest of the academic year due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Cooper ordered schools closed across North Carolina in mid-March. They were to remain closed at least through May 15.
“We’ve had to make another tough choice,” Cooper said during an afternoon news conference. “We’ve decided to continue remote learning for the rest of the school year for our K-12 public schools.”
Cooper said the decision was made in consultation with State Board of Education (SBE) chairman Eric Davis and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” Cooper said. “But it’s important to protect the health and safety of our students and our school staff.”
The governor said he’s optimistic schools will reopen in August for the 2020-21 school year. But he added, “It won’t be business as usual.”
“There will be new measures in place to protect health when school buildings open again next [school] year,” Cooper said. “This pandemic will be with us for some time, but I have every confidence that we will find a way to get schools open safely in the new school year.”
Cooper said the opening of summer camps and the reopening of schools in the summer and fall will depend on them meeting health guidelines to be established later
Davis said moving forward, resources are needed to continue to feed children, remain connected to students and to provide training and support to educators rethinking instructional design and delivery.
The SBE has submitted a $380 million emergency funding request to lawmakers to support school nutrition, remote learning, exceptional children’s programs and funding for a Summer Bridge/Jump Start program for rising first through rising fourth graders who need extra support.
“We plan to invite this special group of students to gain a jump start on the next school year, reestablishing relationships with teachers and their classmates as they continue their education,” Davis said.
He said the program will focus on the early grades and literacy but could be expanded to more grades and students depending on funding levels.
In the meantime, Davis said school employees will continue to support students and to provide supplemental remote learning opportunities until the scheduled end of each district’s respective 2019-20 school year.
“Teachers and school employees are to continue to work and they remain eligible to be paid,” Davis said. “Hourly employees remain important for instructional purposes and to fulfilling urgent emergency needs. Local leaders should continue to assign duties to our valuable classified staff members to keep them working.”
Johnson said that while there was hope schools could eventually reopen this school year, the current COVID-19 situation does not make that possible.
“However, I want to assure everyone that this will not be the new normal,” Johnson said. “While this crisis has forced us to be reactive over the last month, plans for next school year are already underway and will be proactive.”
Johnson said more news about those measures will be shared soon.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the state’s nearly 100,000 public school educators support the decision to keep schools closed.
“While the school buildings remain closed, the education and learning will continue,” Jewell said. “Our educators continue to be on the front lines of this pandemic providing new remote learning opportunities and essential nutritional and emotional support, and we appreciate local school districts adhering to the more stringent personal protecting protocols and social distancing guidelines.”
On Thursday, Cooper extended the statewide stay-at-home order until May 8.
To lift the order, Cooper has said the state will need to see progress in the leveling or decreased trajectory COVID-like illnesses over 14 days; sustained leveling or decreased trajectory of lab-confirmed cases over 14 Days; sustained leveling or decreased trajectory in percent of positive tests over 14 days and a leveling or decrease in hospitalizations over 14 days.
Some educators saw Cooper extending the order as a signal schools would not reopen May 15.
Cooper’s reopening of the state in phases was also considered a clue that schools would not reopen because each phase lasts two to three weeks.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced Wednesday that schools in his state would remain closed through the end of the school year.
Education Week reports that 41 states, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year. That affects approximately 43 million public school students, including 1.6 million in North Carolina.
McMaster encouraged districts to continue to offer remote learning opportunities through the school year. He also wants them to consider holding some type of graduation ceremony for seniors.
This week, Keith Sutton, chairman of the Wake County Board of Education, said this week that the state’s largest school district will find a way to honor its seniors.
“We are committed to making sure that our seniors have some graduation experience,” Sutton said during a video update on the school district’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re not sure what that might look like.”
Dane West, a Wake County social studies teacher, said Cooper had a tough decision to make.
“However, I believe this is the only way to keep my students and colleagues as well as our families safe as safe as possible during the pandemic,” West said. “I am going to keep doing my best to teach my students in this unprecedented time and hope the NCGA [state lawmakers] will work with Gov. Cooper to do what is necessary to help our public schools through this time and for whatever might come in the future.”
Adrian Harrold Wood, a North Carolina writer and mother of four, including one child with special needs, said Cooper is right to stay the course.
“In considering the scientific data available to us surrounding COVID-19, I think Gov. Cooper is being prudent in his decision to close schools for the rest of the year,” Wood said. “While it is not an easy decision, North Carolina’s numbers are just not where they need to be. We cannot put families nor teachers at risk.”
Wood applauded the state’s teachers for their efforts.
“I believe that our teachers are working harder than ever to teach virtually, and I am so appreciative of their efforts,” she said. “As the mom of four children and one with autism, it has not been easy. I think North Carolina families recognize that we have to work hard now so that we can benefit in the long run.