Here is Gov. Cooper’s plan for North Carolina public schools this fall

RALEIGH — A plan is in place for North Carolina public schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced guidelines Tuesday that will allow North Carolina K-12 schools to reopen at reduced in-classroom capacity but give parents and school districts the choice to have classes entirely online.

>> CMS called an emergency board meeting to be held at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Board members will go over Cooper’s guidance for reopening schools and approve a remote-learning plan. They will also approve a plan for reopening the district.

The guidelines from Cooper and the Department of Health and Human Services allows in-person instruction if students, teachers and staff members wear face coverings and people remain 6 feet apart at school. The plan also lets families decide whether to opt-in for remote learning.

“We know schools will look a lot different this year,” Cooper said in an afternoon news conference. “They have to be safe and effective.”

“We know there will always be some risk with in-person learning and we are doing a lot to reduce that risk,” Cooper said. “But as pediatricians and other health experts tell us, there is much risk in not going back to in-person school.”

Many parents have been waiting for the governor’s decision because it will have ramifications on going back to work.

Despite the governor’s decision for a mix of in-person classes and remote learning, parents still have the option to choose online-only learning if they aren’t comfortable sending their child to campus.

“I know it’s a very difficult decision given that people need to work of course and childcare issues, but at the same time I prefer the safety for the kids, students, teachers, and school staff in general,” parent Tiffany Bird said.

Under Plan B, schools are required to follow key safety measures that include:

  • Require face coverings for all teachers and students K-12
  • Limit the total number of students, staff and visitors within a school building to the extent necessary to ensure 6 feet distance can be maintained when students/staff will be stationary
  • Conduct symptom screening, including temperature checks
  • Establish a process and dedicated space for people who are ill to isolate and have transportation plans for ill students
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in the school and transportation vehicles regularly
  • Require frequent hand washing throughout the school day and provide hand sanitizer at entrances and in every classroom
  • Discontinue activities that bring together large groups
  • Limit nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups
  • Discontinue use of self-service food or beverage distribution

In addition, schools are strongly recommended to follow additional safety measures that include:

  • Designate hallways and entrance/exit doors as one-way
  • Keep students and teachers in small groups that stay together as much as possible
  • Have meals delivered to the classroom or have students bring food back to the classroom if social distancing is not possible in the cafeteria
  • Discontinue activities that bring together large groups
  • Place physical barriers such as plexiglass at reception desks and similar areas

Cooper said teachers, staff and students will all be given five reusable masks and he hopes to provide more. Masks will be required for everyone while inside the building, including elementary students.

Districts were given 3 scenarios in June for what class will be like for the upcoming school year. Plan A called for entirely in-person classes, Plan B included a hybrid of online and in-person learning and Plan C promote fully remote instruction. Cooper decided to go with Plan B.

Although the plan costs more than other options, Cooper said it is the best decision to keep students safe and properly educated during the pandemic.

“It’s a measured balanced approach that will allow children to attend but provide important safety protocols,” Cooper said.

State law appears to prevent remote learning during the first week of school, though Cooper insisted his plan is legal because of the broad emergency authority he has during the pandemic. Republicans worry Cooper’s directive further harms businesses and will hurt students’ ability to receive the in-person instruction they need.

“Today’s announcement that classrooms will remain closed to students either periodically or completely exacerbates the administration’s economic and public health failures while adding even more uncertainty for struggling families in North Carolina,” said Republican House Speaker Tim Moore.

Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson was not present at the news conference. Shortly after Cooper’s announcement, he said in a statement he’s glad the governor lifted the 50% occupancy limits on schools but “would prefer we go further with a plan that is built around local control to facilitate greater flexibility for communities based on their metrics.”

According to the governor, schools district have the leeway to go all remote (Plan C) if they choose, but no district may fall below the baseline of Plan B, meaning no school district can fully reopen.

In many cases, students are expected to rotate between in-person and online instruction in a given week.

Cooper said school districts should work with teachers who fall into the high-risk category. He suggested they can possibly be responsible for remote instruction. He also said he wants pay raises for instructors.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, people who came in prolonged close contact with the student will have to quarantine. One positive case doesn’t necessarily mean the school will have to close. Cooper said it would depend on the situation.

If trends spike, Cooper said the state will move back to all remote learning.

Now that the state has made its decision, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district has to officially approve its plan. The board is meeting Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Breakdown of CMS Plan B:

Pre-K- 8th grade:

  • Students will be broken into three groups and rotate in and out of in-person and remote learning (A,B,C schedule)
  • Students will attend in-person learning Monday through Friday during their assigned week followed by two weeks of remote learning

9th-11th grade:

  • Students will also be on an A, B, C schedule
  • In-class learning will happen Monday through Thursday followed by two weeks of remote learning
  • Remote learning will happen on Fridays of their in-person week

12th grade:

  • Students will have one day of in-classroom learning one day a week -- the rest will be remote

CMS has estimated it will take 15 seconds per staff member and 30 seconds per student to check temperatures.

As for other health precautions, there will be social distancing in hallways and common areas and enhanced sanitation.

When a child boards a school bus, a parent or guardian can sign off on a child’s symptom screening, but the student will still need to be screened when they get to school.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state is working with colleges on higher education guidance.

The North Carolina High Schools Athletic Association will make decisions on high school sports.

[READ MORE: CDC director supports in-person learning at schools]

Reporter Joe Bruno went to neighborhoods across Charlotte after the announcement to speak with the community.

In west Charlotte, Razlyah White said she is ready for the fourth grade.

“I’m excited, because I get to see my friends, and I don’t have to stay in the house,” Razlyah said.

The half-and-half approach is fine with parent Damon Davis.

“It is a balance,” Davis said. “We want to make sure our kids are safe, but we also want to make sure they have proper education.”

Davis was going to Target in Steele Creek and said his son, who is in the fourth grade, is itching to return to class.

“Being away from the classroom, I know my kids, they are really excited to get back to school,” Davis said.

In Matthews, parent Clara Beyoka wasn’t sure that everyone will wear a mask at school.

“We need, like, effort from parents also to teach them,” Beyoka said.

Beyoko said she is nervous about sending her daughter to school during the pandemic

“My biggest concern is to catch COVID-19,” she said. “That’s it. Right there.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield was in Mecklenburg County on Monday and said he supports in-person studies.

He said millions of children depend on meals and mental health services and one of the school’s roles is to report child and sexual abuse.

Redfield said the death rate for children under 18 is extremely low, but finding a path to get there is the important thing.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said she agrees that it is important for children to be back in class, but people need to wear masks to make sure kids can get back to school sooner.

“Getting our children back in school has to be a focus for us,” Harris said. “It has to be a priority for us.”

Cooper has said all along that he relies on the data to make his decisions. Redfield said North Carolina has improved greatly over the last six weeks.

State leaders vowed to allow the state’s 115 school districts to take extra time to ensure their teachers and staff are prepared for the stipulations under Plan B as spelled out in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which was updated on June 30.

Cooper's plan will likely draw the ire of President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, both of whom have threatened to withhold federal funds from states that don't provide in-person classes to all students.

“We don’t respond to those kind of threats,” Cooper said. “We’re making decisions on the health and safety of our students, our teachers and our families and the best way to get them a quality education.”

The governor also announced North Carolina will remain under the Phase 2 “safer-at-home” order for three more weeks. The order was set to expire on Friday. It would’ve allowed businesses like bars and gyms to reopen -- August 7 is the new possible date for reopening Phase 3 businesses.

He also said banning alcohol sales after 10 p.m. in restaurants is a good idea for some communities. He believes local governments should consider it if they feel they need it.