Education

Will safety guidelines for schools be recommendations or mandates?

Health and safety guidance for school reopening is coming next week.

Will it be a uniformed set of optional recommendations school districts may follow to keep students and staff safe as they return to school in mid-August?

Or, a requirement districts must follow?

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Superintendent Mark Johnson said Thursday that early guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS) is more recommendation than mandate.

“While many have been expecting a defined list of requirements, it appears many of the substantive guidelines around social distancing and face coverings and remote learning may be more of recommendations,” Johnson said. “As Gov. [Roy] Cooper does put forth recommendations rather than requirements, I do expect North Carolina will see 115 unique plans for the 115 unique school districts we support.”

Meanwhile, North Carolina lost its first student to the coronavirus, a second grader in Durham who attended Creekside Elementary School.

According to media reports, Aurea Soto Morales died at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill on Monday.

Johnson noted her passing at Thursday’s remote meeting of the SBE.

“We’ve lost a student to COVID-19 this week, a second-grader,” Johnson said. “She’s about the age of my own daughter and I cannot fathom the pain the family must be going through right now.”

Johnson created a task force in April that has worked on plans to reopen schools safely. North Caroliona closed schools in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnson said the task force will work under the assumption that the guidelines coming from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will not be requirements.

“With that in mind, we’re not going to work on a one-size fit all approach,” Johnson said. “Instead, we will seek to offer a tool kit for districts to provide different levels of strategy that can be individualized to best support the decision-making of school leaders, on the ground in each district.”

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

The State Board of Education (SBE) will review and possibly approve health and safety guidelines for school reopening during a special meeting June. 11.

The guidelines will incorporate recommendations from the NCDHSS and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) in consultation with Gov. Cooper’s office, said SBE Chairman Eric Davis.

The SBE was scheduled to receive an update on health and safety guidelines at its meeting this week. The board removed the item from its agenda to consider additional information shared by superintendents, teachers and other stakeholders.

“It [the additional information] made it clear that there was an opportunity to improve the product we were working on in collaboration with our partners in the Department of Health and Human Services, and so we elected to continue to work on that document as the superintendents suggested,” Davis said.

Beverly Emory, deputy superintendent of district support, said NCDPI has worked closel with NCDHHS to develop a plan to keep students and school staffs safe when they return to school buildings in August.

“We have spent intense time with our partners at DHHS in what we would call feedback loop looking at guidance, revisiting it, trying to take a health perspective and medical expertise and weave into it the practicality of what that looks like in schools,” Emory said.

She said it’s important that school and health leaders speak with one voice when they share guidelines with school districts next week.

“We want to align what we release, because we only get one opportunity to do that, with NCDHSS guidance, so that it is easy to understand and interpret and that there was good flow between that [NCDHSS] guidance and operational guidance that will come from the department [NCDPI],” Emory said.

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