Butler High School in Matthews. Photo courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

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Public schools can be open for in-person instruction this fall, but the coming year will look unlike any in North Carolina’s history, Gov. Roy Cooper said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

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School districts may open with a range of precautions in place. But local district officials who feel it’s not safe can choose to conduct school entirely online.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Even in districts that decide to open buildings for classes, parents will also be able to keep students at home if they think allowing them in school poses too much of a danger, Cooper said.

For school districts that do decide to open, students, teachers and staff will all be required to wear masks.

To allow for physical distancing, fewer students will be allowed in buildings at one time, which means many will have to learn remotely for at least part of the week, which Cooper calls “Plan B.”

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The mid-July announcement may also not be the final word on how the state’s public schools conduct classes this year.

“The start of school is a month away for most of our children,” Cooper said. “We know a lot can happen in that time.”

If the COVID-19 continues to spread and school cannot be safe, “then North Carolina will have to move to all remote learning like we did last March,” he said. This is called “Plan C.”

Cooper said the state will provide each student and teacher with five reusable cloth face coverings.

Currently, there is no treatment, cure or vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. About half of North Carolina’s population is at increased risk of serious illness or death from the virus. Those people include anyone ages 65 and older or those with other underlying conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a weakened immune system, sickle cell disease or a range of other heart and lung conditions.

Response to schools announcement

Now that Cooper has made a decision about the upcoming school year, Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said teachers and families can now approach the districts with their questions and concerns.

“Lots of educators have concerns about ‘What happens if I get sick?'” Kelly said. “‘What happens with my sick leave? What happens if a kid goes into my classroom and decides they are not going to wear a mask?’ 

“Parents also wonder if they have to send their kid into a classroom with a kid who might have COVID. The whole class might have to be quarantined,” she said. “We can calm a lot of the anxiety and fear by offering as much transparency as possible.”

Dr. Ibukun Christine Akinboyo, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist with the Duke School of Medicine, said Tuesday that schools will need guidance on what to do when there is an infection cluster. They also need to take into account the varying health needs of their students and staff.

“Who critically needs to be in person, and who can remain virtual? This does not just impact students,” she said. “It may impact staff, teachers and all of those people peripherally related to schools. Who needs to be on campus, and who can remain remote?”

Now is also the time to help children develop the habits they will need to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said.

“Helping our kids understand to wear a mask and practice it. Washing their hands and waiting 6 feet apart. All of that is really good guidance for how we approach when and if we return to school buildings,” Walker said. “Yes, our kids are learning in this new environment.”

“I don’t see how schools can open up in any capacity when not everyone has (personal protective equipment). There are older teachers I know who haven’t been going out for their safety.”

Gracie Staser, recent graduate of Broughton High School in Wake County and freshman at Appalachian State University, executive at large for Wake County Black Student Coalition

Though districts are supposed to provide extra time for handwashing, Broughton High School graduate and rising Appalachian State freshman Gracie Staser said she remains skeptical about cleanliness during a pandemic.

“I don’t see how schools can open up in any capacity when not everyone has (personal protective equipment),” said Staser, who is also the executive at large for the Wake County Black Student Coalition. “There are older teachers I know who haven’t been going out for their safety.”

School bathrooms at times did not have toilet paper or paper towels, and hot water was not always available, she said.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said children are less likely to be infected by COVID-19, less likely to spread it and less likely to get severe illness compared to adults.

State data shows that while 11% of COVID positive cases are children ages 17 and younger, only one of the state’s 1,552 deaths is from a child.

Akinboyo said that while people are worried about the long-term effects on children, some solace may come from the fact that COVID-19 “seems to be milder in younger kids.”

“But I will say, particularly in our area, we have had child care settings that have been open … until recently we have not seen rapid clusters around spread in those settings,” Akinboyo said. “As the community prevalence has gone up, we have seen some clusters of spread among staffers, among children. And that is not unexpected.”

Cooper and other officials have said children learn best when they attend class in person. 

“Schools support our children’s social, emotional and physical development,” he said. “They are reliable sources of good meals. They are a critical line of defense when a student has a troubled home life.”

Cooper also extended the state’s “safer at home” order for another three weeks. The order, which would have allowed all businesses to reopen, was set to be lifted this week.

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Kate Martin

Kate Martin is a staff investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. She may be reached at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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  1. How does option B work?
    Say 50% of parents opt for classroom instruction and 50% for online only learning will extra teachers be hired or are teachers expected to teach in class then in the evenings teach online?
    As teachers will be asked to double their workload will their salaries reflect this?