They’re the big questions of the day.
What does the timeline look like for deciding when to and how to reopen North Carolina’s public schools?
And when they do reopen, possibly as early as Aug. 17, what will they look like?
What directives will school staffs, parents and students be given about protecting themselves against the contagious and deadly COVID-19?
There are no definitive or answers, for now.
But they’re coming, says Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).
“Very, very, very quickly here, within the next week or so, we’re going to have to start getting some clarity on school guidance,” Perry said Thursday, noting that virus data will drive school reopening decisions.
Perry’s remarks were made to the House Select Committee on COVID-19 focused on educational issues.
The committee met remotely with Perry and school leaders to receive an update on the work being done by the Schools Reopening Task Force (SRTF) created to address the challenges of reopening schools.
David Stegall, state deputy superintendent of innovation, said absence any additional guidance from Gov. Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) activity at schools could begin to rev up as soon as next month.
“Things such as the end of the dead period for sports where athletes can start practicing and doing workouts and lifting and conditioning begins in June,” Stegall said.
Summer school, year-round schools, summer camps and teacher development programs would occur before traditional schools open in the fall, he said.
“Lots of stuff is happening and happening quickly and we want to make sure we’re giving as much guidance as possible,” Stegall said.
School buildings in the state have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. And many of the state’s nearly 1.6 million students are now learning from home.
Perry shared preliminary guidelines for reopening schools with lawmakers. She covered social distancing, cleaning/hygiene, monitoring the health of students and staff, protecting high-risk populations and educating students and staff about the virus.
“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done because while, I think we have some good ideas from the public health side, what is going to protect students and staff and considerations for high risk individuals and what the kinds of practical things are that need to be done, the implication for schools we realize are massive,” Perry said.
Requiring students and teachers to wear face masks is being considered.
“Obviously, there are many considerations around face coverings for children, particularly at different ages, their level of compliance or ability to wear them properly, making sure everyone has them,” Perry said.
NCDHHS and state education partners are also weighing what to do about athletics, managing staggered school schedules and lunches being served someplace other than lunchrooms, she said.
“There are a lot of logistical considerations,” Perry said. “We’re still vetting options because we have to take into consideration all of the practical realities.”
State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chairs the House Select Committee’s on COVID-19 education group, asked about protocols to ensure the safety of exceptional children, some of whom are more susceptible to infection.
“We’re probably going to have to make some special arrangements and what kind of costs do we expect to incur,” Horn asked.
Beverly Emory, state deputy superintendent of district support, said experts are imbedded in work groups to advocate and to “give voice” to issues important for to medically fragile children.
“We are trying to get our arms around that as we look at these scenarios,” Emory said. “How they [eceptional children] participate needs to be as equitable as any other students in our system.”
State Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, asked if guidelines for school reopening would be tailored to fit individual school districts.
Blackwell said Avery County, where there are no confirmed cases of the virus, might not need the same strict guidelines as downtown Charlotte.
“Is DHHS going to make it possible to have variable standards and practices [for schools] based on the actual on the ground realities or are they going to continue their [statewide] policy of one-size fits all when it comes to what we must do?” Blackwell asked.
Perry said such a decision would be a joint one, made with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, NCDHHS, Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education and other parties about whether districts would have flexibility implementing safety guidelines.
“We understand that there are many differences across the state both in terms of how the public health data is playing out in this crisis and also in how schools are structured,” Perry said.