Raleigh, N.C. — The governor, his secretary of health and a bipartisan pair of the state’s top education officials pressed school systems across North Carolina Tuesday afternoon to reopen for in-person learning.
“It’s time to get our children back into the classroom,” Gov. Roy Cooper said during a briefing on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The science is clear. It is safe to reopen our schools in accordance with the health protocols,” agreed Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last week indicating children can return safely to in-person learning if precautions are taken. Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said at the time that they were reviewing the findings, and they encouraged local school leaders to do the same.
State mandates allow in-person, full-time classes only for students through fifth grade, with local systems deciding what to offer. Middle school and high school classes must be either all remote or a mix of in-person and remote learning.
North Carolina is among states with partial statewide school closures, joining California, Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico and West Virginia. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Texas have all of their schools open full time.
Cooper said he wouldn’t mandate a return to classrooms for all students, saying the decision is best left to local school boards and school district administrators.
For the same reason, he said he is opposed to a bill moving through the legislature that would require school districts to offer an in-person option to students.
Senate Bill 37 would require the in-person option for all special education students and either full-time classroom instruction or a blend of online and in-person classes to allow for more social distancing for all other students.
Districts couldn’t be strictly remote learning, but they would have to offer parents an online-only option. Local administrators would be allowed to close a school or a classroom in case of an outbreak or insufficient staff.
The requirements would become effective within about 15 days of the bill becoming law. The measure easily cleared the Senate Education committee Tuesday afternoon, though there are several more votes before the measure would go to Cooper, who wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he would veto it.
“I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Cooper said of the bill. “I think the way to go is to get our local school boards to take this action. … They have to make some very tough decisions on the ground.”
Ninety of the 115 school districts in North Carolina already provide some in-person instruction, he said.
“Students should still have the option of remote learning if that’s what’s best for them, and the teachers who are at risk [of COVID-19] should be providing that instruction,” he said. “But students who are ready to return to the classrooms should have that chance.”
Teachers, parents split over school reopening
Despite the push to return to class, teachers won’t be moved up in the state’s coronavirus vaccination priority list, Cooper and Cohen said. Teachers are among the “essential” workers who are eligible for vaccinations after health care workers and people ages 65 or older, but the governor said vaccine supplies are too limited to shoehorn teachers into the current distribution schedule.
“A lot of our educators are feeling concerned about their own health and safety as well as the safety of their families and thinking about students and their families as well,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “We will continue to push for educators to be moved up if the priority is to reopen schools in larger numbers.”
Once teachers are properly vaccinated, Walker Kelly said, NCAE will back the effort to return to in-person classes.
“We will be working to make sure our educators are vaccinated and then make sure, when they return into school buildings, that they have mask compliance, social distancing measures [and] to make sure that buildings are cleaned properly and effectively,” she said.
Carlos Perez, who teaches at Jordan High School in Durham, is less enthusiastic.
“I think [classes] should remain online. I think it’s the safest option, given the circumstances,” Perez said. “With cases rising and with what we’ve seen globally, when schools reopen prematurely, I don’t think we should be putting our students, families and co-workers at risk.”
But Marci Loiselle, who has a fourth-grader and a kindergartner in Orange County schools, said she believes Cooper should mandate reopening.
“I don’t feel like the students can wait any longer,” said Loiselle, who’s a psychologist. “Someone needs to protect the students’ emotional, academic and social well-being and health, and I feel like [remote learning] has taking a real toll on students.”
Beth Roach, whose son is a senior at Apex High School, agreed, saying online courses aren’t as rigorous as in-person instruction.
“These kids are not dealing with everyday situations anymore,” Roach said. “They are literally in the house playing games and doing other things that are not going to prepare them well for college.”
Loiselle said she recognizes teachers’ reluctance to return before getting vaccinated, but she pointed to studies that show schools pose a lower risk of viral transmission.
“Their risk is much lower than the risk that a grocery store clerk or a fast food worker or a factory worker takes on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I feel very troubled personally where we live in a county where restaurants, gyms [and] bars are allowed to open, but schools aren’t. Schools really should be the last to close and the first to reopen.”
“We should provide a way for teachers who are willing and want to work – and there are many of them – to teach in the classroom and to continue to impact lives,” Roach said.
Lawmakers: Remote learning not good for everyone
During the Senate committee meeting, lawmakers heard from parents whose children are struggling, including Sarah Baker, who has a third-grader with special needs. She said her son James slumps in a corner at times, paying little attention to his computer screen.
“He is not doing well at all,” Baker said. “His teachers are trying so hard. He’s learning to hold a crayon. This is a child who can’t walk or talk, so of course he can’t type.”
Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, said remote learning has been especially hard on younger students, like kindergartners.
“These poor little kids sitting in front of these screens is criminal,” McInnis said. “We need to get them back in the classroom.”
Jennifer Burch, a mental health therapist, told lawmakers about a high school freshman who got all A’s in middle school but this year is failing all of her classes. Last month, the girl told her therapist that she wanted to commit suicide, Burch said.
“She had so much shame at not succeeding in school,” Burch said. “I heard 30 versions of this last week alone. Chances are high there’s someone in your life having a similar experience. Remote learning does not work for some children.”
Dr. Daniel Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, said North Carolina research shows “Plan B,” the hybrid model that allows more distancing, can be done safely with older students. However, he said, there’s much less data on the safety of the full-time, in-person classes in “Plan A,” especially for high school students.
“If schools do not have strong mitigation measures in place, they will indeed serve to increase community [viral] spread, and it will compromise public health,” Benjamin told lawmakers.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said Tuesday morning that a wider reopening is “the right thing to do for kids.”
“I’m incredibly grateful that the four of us will be singing from the same songbook,” she said, referring to herself, Cooper, Cohen and Davis.
WRAL Capitol Bureau Chief Laura Leslie and WRAL Durham reporter Sarah Krueger contributed to this report.