Citing recent studies that show schools can reopen for in-person instruction if they follow safety protocols, Gov. Roy Cooper and state education leaders on Tuesday said it’s time for students to return to schools for in-person instruction.
“Research done right here in North Carolina tells us that in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols in place,” Cooper said.
The governor is referring to the much-discussed ABC Science Collaborative study that looked at 11 North Carolina school districts during the first two months of school and found no cases of student-to-adult transmissions. Researchers from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill make up the Science Collaborative.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released reports showing that schools aren’t big spreaders of the coronavirus.
Attending school in-person is important for reasons beyond academic instruction, Cooper said.
“School is where students learn social skills, get reliable meals, and find their voices,” he said.
Cooper made his remarks during an afternoon press conference. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis joined him to urge local school boards and superintendents to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
“Learning loss resulting from COVID has the potential to be a generational hurdle, but the data we have seen shows us that schools can reopen safely if they adhere to COVID prevention policies,” Truitt said. “For many schools, the logistics of returning to in-person instruction five days per week will be a challenge, but this is absolutely a challenge we must face head on so that all students have a chance to fulfill their potential.”
The NC Association of Educators immediately released a statement agreeing that in-person instruction is best for students. Educators, however, must be vaccinated before returning to school buildings, the teacher advocacy organization said.
“Without the widespread vaccination of educators and strictly enforced social distancing, it is impossible for many schools to open safely, and for the schools that have been open, they need help,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly, who made a similar plea during a press conference Monday.
Walker Kelly added: “If Gov. Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do.”
Teachers are in the next priority group for vaccinations along with other frontline, essential workers such as police officers, firefighters and others who must leave home to perform their jobs, noted Mandy Cohen, secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).
“But I want to remind folks that there is such limited supply [of the vaccine] right now,” Cohen said. “We still see very high demand for those who are 65 and up, and so it’s going to be a number of weeks before we’re able to move forward to our frontline, essential workers.”
The state is currently vaccinating health care workers and citizens 65 and older.
“The reason we started with the 65 and older group is because they represent 83% of the deaths in North Carolina,” Cohen said. “We really wanted to protect those at highest risk of death from COVID.”
Cooper’s press conference came minutes after the state Senate gave a favorable hearing to Senate Bill 37 that would require school districts to provide an in-person learning option to K-12 students for the remainder of the school year, starting 15 days after the bill becomes law.
“In-person Learning Choice for Families” (SB 37) was sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.
“We all know that the continued learning loss, the lack of routine and limited social interaction is only feeding a generation of anxious, depressed and helpless kids,” Ballard said.
She said a local superintendent told her recently that the suicide rate among teens in his county is higher than the rate of deaths from the coronavirus. Ballard did not name the county.
Districts would be required to provide the option for students to attend school under the state’s Plan A, which is in-person learning with minimal social distancing; or Plan B, a mix of in-person and remote learning, under SB 37.
Parents would have the option to keep children in remote-only courses.
The bill also requires an in-person option for students with Individualized Learning Plans or IEPs.
Education experts say in-person instruction is critical for special education students to ensure they receive the services required by their IEPs. Children with cognitive and physical impairments also find it difficult to sit in front of computers for long stretches to attend class online.
Cooper said he doesn’t “think that’s the way to go,” when asked about the bill. School districts should follow prevailing health guidance and decide whether to reopen for in-person instruction without state interference, he said.
Cooper didn’t say Tuesday whether he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, has expressed support for SB 37. Berger has also criticized Cooper for not reopening schools sooner.
“Gov. Cooper has not acted decisively, and the public education bureaucracy has rejected its most fundamental task: educating our children. Berger said last week in a press release announcing the bill. “It’s time for this travesty to end,”
State House Speaker Time Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, issued this statement Tuesday:
“The massive learning loss of the last year must end now,” Moore said. “The most vulnerable young people in our state desperately need a return to productive education communities that shape their development as individuals, and I urge every school district to safely offer in-person instruction this semester.”