Gov. Roy Cooper and statewide education leaders expressed their support for resuming K-12 in-person instruction in a Feb. 2 press conference in a letter to school board members and superintendents. The letter comes as educators, parents, students and school system leaders grapple with how best to approach instruction nearly a year into the pandemic.
Cooper’s support stems from research suggesting that schools can reopen safely when COVID-19 mitigation strategies are in place and that children are less likely to have or spread COVID-19. However, research is still evolving, with some studies and epidemiologists stating that closing schools can help reduce transmission.
Since August, at least 90 of the state’s 115 school districts have safely provided in-person instruction, Cooper said in the letter.
“Protecting the health and safety of the people of this state, especially our children and our teachers, has been our goal,” Cooper said in a press release. “...Research done right here in North Carolina tells us that in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols in place.”
Cooper’s letter prompted the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education to discuss reopening on Feb. 4, instead of its scheduled discussion on Feb. 18. The board voted unanimously to move to hybrid, in-person instruction starting in April after relying on remote learning since last March.
North Carolina schools may be required to offer an in-person option for the remainder of the school year if NC Senate Bill 37 passes. The Senate will have its final vote on the bill Tuesday, determining if it moves on to the House.
Schools offering in-person instruction are encouraged to follow protocols outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, including access to masks and hand sanitizer, improving central air filtration, enforcing social distancing and making sure employees quarantine if ill.
But many remain divided over when and how schools should re-open. Jen Mangrum, the 2020 Democratic nominee for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said she thinks it isn’t yet safe to resume in-person instruction.
“We cannot put school personnel back in school buildings until we can assure that they're safe,” Mangrum said. “There are studies that show closing schools is an effective way to decrease the spread of COVID, so I have a hard time understanding why we would put people back in classrooms.”
One group of parents, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Parents for Open Schools, is concerned about children’s quality of education and mental health during remote learning. The group says it thinks schools could safely reopen now with protocols in place.
“We have learned of the adverse effects of isolation,” Glorija Gladney, a CHCCS parent and founder of the group, said. “We need school doors unlocked to those they were designed to serve.”
The group has also cited Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said the vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening.
But in public comment to the CHCCS Board, many teachers said they weren’t comfortable returning to in-person instruction without a vaccine. One teacher said she didn’t think it was safe for students or staff to return until vaccines have been administered, and another said she was not comfortable returning and risking her health.
A petition by the North Carolina Association of Educators, calling for educators to be prioritized for the vaccine, has garnered almost 19,000 signatures.
“Fifteen teachers in North Carolina have died from COVID-19,” Mangrum said. “There's uncertainty out there about COVID, and I believe that people use that uncertainty to say there's a lack of risk.”
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