Citing improving COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that elementary school students can begin to return to classrooms for in-person instruction starting Oct. 5.
Most school districts are only offering remote learning (Plan C). Others are providing a mix of remote learning and in-person instruction under Plan B.
Each district can decide whether to fully reopen schools for K-5 students under Plan A, the option that became available Thursday.
“I want to be clear, Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family,” Cooper said. “Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it. Districts will have the flexibility to select the plan based on their unique situation.”
Cooper said Plan A is now an option because “North Carolinians have doubled down on safety and prevention measures” to stabilize key COVID-19 metrics such as hospital capacity, which has remained stable.
“We have shown that listening to the science works,” Cooper said. “As a result, our key numbers have stabilized or even decreased and in some instances for a sustained period.”
He said that research showing that young children spread the virus at a lower rate than older children and adults also factored into the decision.
Middle schools and high schools will continue to operate under Plan B or Plan C.
The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) said Cooper is “flirting with danger.”
“Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.
Walker Kelly said the NCAE won’t recommend teachers return to classrooms where it’s difficult to practice social distancing unless they are properly fitted with a N-95 mask to protect their health and the health of those around them.
Cooper’s announcement came a day after state Republicans and a group of parents demanded that schools be reopened fully for in-person instruction.
On Thursday, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said Cooper’s decision is a step in the right direction but insisted that all parents be given the option of sending children to school for in-person instruction full time.
“His new plan ignores the needs of low-income and exceptional students in middle and high schools for in-person instruction,” Berger said in a statement. “We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on ‘science.’ What is the science that says it’s safe for 5th graders to be in school full time, but it’s not safe for 6th graders?
In recent weeks, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who’s challenging the democratic governor in the Nov. 3 General Election, has grown increasingly critical of Cooper’s decision to not fully reopen schools.
“These schools know how to open safely,” Forest said during a press conference Wednesday. “They can follow the lead of schools all over the world and do that. They can make it safe for their administrators. They can make it safe for their teachers. They can make it safe for their students. Most importantly, they can let the parents decide.”
State Superintendent Mark Johnson, also a Republican, applauded Cooper’s decision, which he said moved the state closer to allowing families to return to classrooms from in-person learning full time.
“While the governor, the State Board of Education, and I have our differences, I join with them today to encourage local school board members to take advantage of this change and open all schools safely,” Johnson said.
Under Plan A, teachers, students and staff will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing. Students and staff must also pass daily temperature checks and other health screenings.
Forest has been critical of the mask requirement.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, said masks are needed to slow the spread of the virus.
“This is a science and research-based decision, not an opinion,” Cohen said. “That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of 67,000 pediatricians, recommend masks for all children [age] two and up.”
Even before Cooper’s announcement Thursday, some school districts operating under Plan C had begun to discuss opening school buildings for in-person instruction.
The Wake County school system was weighing different options to bring students back for in-person instruction.
Durham Public Schools said in a statement Thursday that it will continue to consider the available options.
“Durham Public Schools is continuing to work with our local health department, medical experts from the ABC Science Collaborative, and a task force of district administrators and teachers in order to assess what is necessary to open our schools safely to students and staff,” district officials said. “We will present survey information to our board on Thursday, Sept. 24, providing insight into our families’, students’, and employees’ satisfaction with remote instruction and desires for in-person learning.”