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Students and teachers in North Carolina’s public schools will not return to in-person classes for the rest of the school year, announced Gov. Roy Cooper Friday.

“School buildings will stay closed to students for this school year, but school isn’t over,” Cooper said.

Cooper also said when school starts next year, it won’t look the same as before the novel coronavirus disrupted daily life all over the planet.

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“There will be new measures in place to protect health … We may not be doing sports or common areas,” when school returns, Cooper said.

“It depends on what our data shows us and what our health experts say.”

To date, more than 51,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and in North Carolina at least 269 people have died from the disease. Many in North Carolina who have not been officially diagnosed are also likely dying of COVID-19, according to an examination of death certificates by six news partners, including Carolina Public Press.

Cooper closed schools in mid-March in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which can cause severe illness and death in some populations. Until Friday that closure was set to end on May 15.

“This decision is not made lightly,” Cooper said. “This decision is made with the high hopes that we would go on and finish the school year like any regular school year. This virus tells us this cannot be. I know parents want us to keep the health and safety of your children as the No. 1 priority.”

Many students may lose ground as they continue to try to learn from home. Eric Davis, chairman of the state board of education, said the next school year will start early for many of North Carolina’s students in the early grades, with a focus on literacy.

“We plan to invite this special group of students to gain a jumpstart on the next school year, reestablishing their relationships with teachers and their classmates as they continue their education,” Davis said.

Thursday Cooper unveiled a tiered plan to open the state, which relies on COVID-19 dropping in North Carolina and a reliable supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Decisions about whether summer camps and summer schools convene in person, Cooper said, rely on whether the state meets health benchmarks.

As for schools opening in the fall, Cooper said school experts are looking at spacing, common areas and hygiene.

“Rest assured, we will operate our schools differently in the next school year,” Davis said. “The safety and security of your child and your child’s teacher, in our eyes, demands nothing less.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said her staff is also concerned about those school personnel and students who have underlying health conditions. People with a range of chronic conditions are more susceptible to severe injury and death due to COVID-19 infections.

“We definitely want to beef up the amount of nursing support to identify students who might be falling ill and think about the strategies to deploy testing and tracing,” Cohen said.

The governor and others said they plan to make an announcement with more specifics about a fall school reopening next week.

Cooper said experts believe the virus will remain in the community through the summer and likely into the fall. Currently there is no cure, no treatment and no vaccine. While a vaccine is in development, it could be more than a year away if not longer. And even with a vaccine in place, no one is sure whether immunity would be long-term like measles or short-term like flu.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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