New 6th-graders in Nicole Parris' class sit in spaced seating during 6th grade orientation in August at Hendersonville Middle. Photo courtesy of Henderson County Schools
New 6th-graders in Nicole Parris' class sit in spaced seating during 6th grade orientation in August 2020 at Hendersonville Middle. Photo courtesy of Henderson County Schools.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently announced that North Carolina schools could return to in-person learning for students in grades kindergarten to five under Plan A as early as next week.

With COVID-19 infection rates in recent testing hovering around 5% in the state — the number the World Health Organization advises communities should meet for two weeks before fully reopening schools and businesses — Cooper said the numbers were trending in the right direction to make Plan A feasible.

“We’re able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and helped us lower our numbers,” he said during his weekly press conference.

Plan A allows students to return to a regular full-day, in-person schedule with safety protocols such as symptom screenings and masks. But the plan also comes with “minimal social distancing,” meaning there are no restrictions on the number of students in the school.

As Carolina Public Press previously reported, the announcement followed pressure from Republican leaders, who said parents should be able to decide whether their children learn in a classroom or online. But Republicans still complained they wanted to see more.

“Parents, teachers and students are at their wits’ end struggling to try to make virtual learning work,” said N.C. Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

“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.”

The announcement came at a time when many districts in the state have already returned to or are about to resume in-person learning under Plan B.

Henderson County Schools enacted a staggered schedule under Plan B on Sept. 21. The decision came after the county saw the number of daily reported cases drop significantly since July, to 21 or fewer per day.

“We’ve been in close collaboration with the Henderson County Department of Public Health, and we’ve been in lockstep with them monitoring our local community numbers as well as their recommendations,” said Jan King, assistant superintendent of Henderson County Schools. “They deemed it safe as long as we followed the guidelines and recommendations.”

Asheboro City Schools also began the process of returning to in-person classes on Sept. 21. The district is taking a staggered approach under Plan B, with the Early Childhood Development Center prekindergarten students back as of Sept. 21, grades K-5 returning Oct. 5 and grades six-12 on Oct. 19. Instruction will follow a hybrid model of two days in-person and three days virtual.

“We believe the best way for students to learn is through in-person instruction,” said Leigh Anna Marbert, public information officer, Asheboro City Schools.

“Students learn best when they are in a classroom, being taught by a certified teacher and surrounded by their peers. With that said, we are proud to have been able to offer remote learning since mid-March, but we’ve wanted to get our students back as soon as we could in the safest manner possible.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced a similar phased plan, with all pre-K students returning Oct. 12, and groups of K-5 and middle schoolers returning on a rotational basis on Nov. 2 and Nov. 23, respectively. High school students will return to classrooms for testing the weeks of Dec. 14 and 21, and then return on a rotational basis for instruction on Jan. 5.

“We want our students back in classrooms, but we have waited until we have a plan that minimizes the risks for students and staff,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board Chair Elyse Dashew.

“We are acting with caution because we want everyone to be healthy and safe in our schools. The phased return, as well as the metrics for measuring health and safety, will help us keep everyone protected as best we can.”

Math teacher Kristen Johnson at Rugby Middle School in Henderson County at her remote learning station, equipped with her laptop, tablet, and ring light for teaching through Google Classroom. Photo courtesy of Henderson County Schools.

Not everyone rushing back

While some lauded the move to return to regular in-person instruction, others have expressed concern. As Carolina Public Press previously reported, the N.C. Association of Educators spoke out against the Plan A decision.

“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 NCAE.

Some districts also agree with that sentiment.

Cumberland County Schools voted Sept. 17 against in-person instruction for the remainder of 2020, citing an employee COVID-19 outbreak with 67 employees testing positive and more than 100 possibly exposed to the virus.

In Guilford County, the district approved a voluntary return to class for pre-K and kindergarten students for daily half-day sessions starting Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, respectively. Those sessions will include social distancing measures outlined in Plan B.

While Superintendent Sharon Contreras previously went on record saying the district would not implement Plan A, citing the county’s infection rate, the board narrowly approved a phased-in version of Plan A.

Besides the voluntary return to classes in Guilford, elementary and middle school students will return to class in late October, and high schools will re-open on Jan. 20.

New Hanover County considered Plan A but ultimately opted to proceed with Plan B, starting Oct. 12. And at this writing, many other districts are weighing their options.

“Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts or every family,” said Cooper. “Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families that choose them.”

That’s certainly the case for parents like Patrick Troutman, who has two high school-age students in Wake County. His family opted to remain in the district’s virtual academy this semester rather than attempt to go back to in-person learning, should it become available.

“We ultimately decided that we wanted the stability of knowing that for fall semester it would be strictly online,” he said. “We wanted to avoid the situation where maybe school starts virtually, and then switches to in-person learning and then possibly going back to virtual.”

Karen Alley, a parent with a high schooler and a middle school student in Wilkes County — which enacted Plan B in early September — opted to allow her high school-age daughter to return to class, but kept her seventh grader in virtual learning due to his Type 1 diabetes.

“Since we were on a hybrid schedule with only half the students at school at a time, wearing masks — that made me feel comfortable sending my daughter back,” Alley said.

“My husband is a nurse on the front lines of this and has seen patients with COVID. He knows how unpredictable it can be, and any sickness makes your diabetes harder to manage. We just weren’t willing to risk it yet with our son.”

But even though she feels comfortable sending her daughter back under a Plan B schedule, Alley said she wouldn’t have that same confidence under Plan A.

“I feel very comfortable with how the schools are handling Plan B,” she said.

“And I hear that cases are starting to go up again — we’ve had a couple of positive tests in two schools in the Wilkes County district. I think going back with everyone in person full-time would just put too many people at risk, students and staff.”

No matter the plan, there are certainly drawbacks for teachers and students — the fear of virus outbreaks, additional workloads to create both virtual and in-person curriculums, toggling between two different modes of learning/teaching. But though these decisions are difficult, many say both teachers and students have stepped up to make the best of this challenging situation.

“We recognize everyone has very unique needs based on their family life — there’s no one-size-fits-all,” said Molly McGowan Gorsuch, public information officer, Henderson County Schools.

“Because of that and the uniqueness of this pandemic, there has always been frustration at some level, but for the most part everyone has come together to make this work.”

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Jennifer Bringle is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. Based in Greensboro, her articles have appeared in many news publications across the state and nationally. Send an email to to contact her or other CPP news team members.

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