North Carolina schools will return to a mix of in-person and remote classes this August, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced in a Tuesday press conference. Cooper also announced that Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening will be extended through at least Friday, Aug. 7.
Officials were considering three plans for the start of the upcoming school year, which included a return to classes with minimal social distancing ("Plan A"), fully remote instruction ("Plan C") and Plan B, a hybrid model. This fall, schools will operate under plan B, with moderate social distancing and only 50 percent of students allowed in a school buildings at one time.
School districts can also choose to operate under Plan C, Cooper said.
Cooper also signed an executive order extending Phase 2 of his three-phase plan to reopen the state due to rising numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, he said.
It's the governor's second time extending Phase 2, following a June 24 decision that cited similar statistics.
Under this phase, dine-in restaurants, retail stores, salons, barbershops and swimming pools can remain open at half capacity. Other facilities, such as gyms, bars and public playgrounds, will stay closed.
At a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting last week, board members went over the district's Plan B, which calls for dividing students into groups and rotating between in-person and remote learning.
In the briefing, Cooper said if indicators such as number of cases or number of hospitalizations spike between now and the start of the school year, it is possible that schools will switch to fully remote instruction.
"Let me be clear: the start of school is a month away for most of our children and we know a lot can happen in that time," Cooper said.
As of 11:30 a.m. on July 14, there are 89,484 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, with 1,956 new cases reported that day.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the upward trends in key indicators are not ideal, but do show more stability than similar trends in other states.
"We continue to simmer, but we've avoided boiling over as many states are doing now," Cohen said.
Cohen said NCDHHS is still working with state higher education leaders to develop plans to tackle coronavirus in classrooms and other school facilities, and guidance for higher education will be available soon.
Eric Davis, chairperson of the North Carolina State Board of Education, said the staff has worked "tirelessly" to get schools ready to reopen since statewide school closure on March 14.
"We all agree that the best place for our students to learn and our teachers to teach is in our safe North Carolina public schools," Davis said. "And a key step to get there is for all of us to do all that we can to slow the spread of this virus in order to make our communities safer and therefore our schools safer."
Cooper said face coverings will be required for students and staff, and the state will provide at least five reusable face masks for every student and teacher. Schools will also be required to limit the number of people in buildings.
He mentioned temperature checks, isolation of symptomatic students and regular cleaning as ways schools can prevent the spread of COVID-19, and said that each district's specific plan could be tailored to fit their needs beyond state guidance.
"Districts and schools will be able to use a plan that works for them," Cooper said.
Davis said he worries "every day" for students and teachers who are vulnerable, and he encouraged folks to follow the "Three Ws" to make North Carolina safer as the school year approaches.
"Our students, teachers and staff members need us to lead by wearing our masks, washing our hands and staying 6 feet apart so they can come back to school," Davis said.
Davis said $390 million dollars of state funding has been sent to schools in the past few months to prepare for reopening, but the federal government needs to "step up" to fill funding gaps beyond state resources.
Dr. Theresa Flynn, a board member of the N.C. Pediatric Society, said the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated a "clear goal" of having students physically present in school, but decisions for how soon and to what capacity students return must be based on science and trends.
"We must use the evidence and research we have to make the best decision for our children and our communities when opening schools," Flynn said.
Flynn said children are less likely to become infected with, spread or suffer severe illness from COVID-19.
"That is good news," Flynn said.
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