Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a press conference, discussing his COVID-19 policies. Screen image from UNC-TV

Schools can soon choose to bring children in kindergarten through fifth grade back to class full time, Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday.

Currently, schools can only have some of their students meeting in person for part of the week. The new proposal would give them flexibility with younger students to meet in person on a regular schedule. School districts could also ignore the additional flexibility and retain partial or fully virtual instruction.

Cooper said schools statewide can move to Plan A as soon as Oct. 5 — a little over two weeks from now. Many of the same protocols will remain in place. Students and staff will still be screened for symptoms before they enter schools. Everyone must continue to wear masks. Plan A allows students and teachers to gather with “minimal social distancing,” and none of the students would learn remotely during the week.

“Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and many families,” Cooper said.

“We are able to (consider) this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on safety and prevention measures.”

Parents can continue to choose to have their students remain home and learn remotely, he said.

The announcement comes as Cooper’s administration has come under fire from Republican leaders who said parents should be allowed to decide whether children learn from a classroom.

“Parents, teachers and students are at their wits’ end struggling to try to make virtual learning work,” state Sen. Phil Berger said in a statement.

“This announcement from Gov. Cooper is a step in the right direction, but he needs to provide all parents with the option of full-time, in-person instruction.”

However, educators cautioned that while teachers wanted to return to in-person instruction, moving too fast could endanger the health of educators and students across the state.

“Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators.

Requirements under Plan A are less stringent than Plan B, according to guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The state can move in this direction because metrics such as hospitalizations, people arriving at emergency rooms with symptoms and the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 are improving, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Masks are working, she said, but the progress is fragile. 

“We need to double down,” Cohen said. “The steps we are taking to reduce viral spread in our community are working.”

Cohen cited research that shows younger children are less likely to be affected by the virus and less likely to transmit it to others.

“Younger children transmit the virus less often — it doesn’t mean that it’s ‘not ever,’” Cohen said.

Several contact tracing studies have shown that children do transmit the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. 

“When everyone is complying with recommended practices that we know mitigate disease spread, we can have children who present with high viral loads and still limit transmission,” Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, a pediatric infectious disease physician and infection control specialist at Duke University School of Medicine, told Carolina Public Press earlier this month.

Schools closed fully in mid-March as the new coronavirus gripped the globe. This fall, public schools opened with reduced capacity in classrooms or virtually under plans B and C, respectively. Districts throughout the state that educate more than two-thirds of all students initially opted to open virtually only.

Some districts that announced some in-person classes later decided to go all-virtual instead. Students and parents have reported widespread problems with distance learning, including on the first day of school.

There also literally may not be enough bandwidth for children to take classes from home. Many rural areas have little to no access to high-speed internet, which allows users to meet virtually on video calls. And when children and parents join video conferences at the same time, they are also competing for bandwidth.

Kate Martin

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