NC elementary schools can now offer full in-person classes: What you need to know

RALEIGH — North Carolina elementary schools will soon be allowed to return to daily, in-person classes, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Thursday.

The decision on whether to return to full in-person instruction will be left up to individual districts. Those choosing to go forward with the Plan A reopening option starting on Oct. 5 won’t be limited in the number of students who can be inside a classroom. They would, however, be required to screen kids for coronavirus symptoms, make sure they wear face coverings and offer remote options for parents concerned about their kids bringing the virus back home.

“The number one opening priority during this pandemic has been our schools, and our continuing progress in fighting the spread of this virus is allowing us to do a little more. The more people wear masks and act responsibly, the more children we can get safely in our schools,” Cooper said.

The move comes two months after the governor chose Plan B as the state’s baseline, which allowed North Carolina K-12 schools to reopen at reduced in-classroom capacity but gave parents and school districts the choice to have classes entirely online.

Middle schools and high schools will remain under Plan B.

The governor and Mandy Cohen, the state’s top public health official, did not outline a timeline for when they’d consider letting middle schools and high schools transition to 100% physical instruction. When classes began last month, most K-12 public school students were on Plan C, which provided fully remote learning, while others adopted the Plan B model providing for a mix of online and in-person instruction.

Cooper said the state’s improved coronavirus numbers and the lower likelihood of infection and transmission among younger people fueled his decision to let elementary schools reopen to more students.

“Districts will have the ability to select a plan based on their unique situation,” Cooper said. “We’re able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers. The science of lower viral spread among children also backs up this decision.”

But Republicans calling for a blanket reopening of all K-12 schools accuse Cooper of letting politics drive his decision.

"We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on ‘science.’ What is the science that says it’s safe for 5th graders to be in school full time, but it’s not safe for 6th graders? " said a statement from Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the state Senate.

Cooper’s GOP gubernatorial challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, said in a news conference on Wednesday that he would reopen the schools without any requirements for teachers or students to wear masks. Instead, he wants individual districts to determine the health and safety protocols for their community.

Cooper called Forest’s comments “irresponsible” and noted it conflicts with overwhelming scientific evidence of the benefits of mask-wearing.

Cooper has still been criticized by Republicans for being too cautious and inconsistent in his approach to reopening. His current executive order prevents bars from reopening, while simultaneously allowing President Donald Trump to utilize a First Amendment exemption to hold large political rallies.

Cooper’s order mandates mask-wearing statewide and limits gathering to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

Cohen, who has long said the Cooper administration is making data-based decisions, stressed the need to prioritize younger children in the K-12 reopening plan.

“Younger children are less likely to become infected, have symptoms, experience severe disease and spread the virus to others,” Cohen said. “The science also shows that in-person learning is so important for the development of all children, especially for younger children.”

North Carolina has reported only four fatalities among those younger than 25, out of a total of 3,180 COVID-related deaths North Carolina has seen since the start of the pandemic. The public health department’s coronavirus dashboard shows zero deaths, eight clusters and 47 coronavirus cases linked to school settings.

Of the more than 4,000 college students in the state who have tested positive for the virus since in-person classes resumed in August, the state health department told The Associated Press on Thursday that its surveillance data found that just “one individual linked to a college or university was admitted to a hospital.”

“We are excited”: Local school districts react to Cooper’s announcement

Thursday’s announcement allows children from kindergarten up to 5th grade to return to the classroom full-time and does not require schools to limit the number of students in a room at one time. However, it still requires safety measures such as masks for all students, teachers and staff, social distancing when possible and symptom screening.

School districts have the choice to conduct classes exclusively online if they see fit.

“I want to be clear, Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family. Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it. And districts will have the flexibility to select a plan based on their unique situation,” Cooper said.

Many districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, have been operating on a full remote learning schedule since the school year started on Aug.17. Others, such as Union County Public Schools went with Plan B, allowing a mix of in-person and online learning.

Cooper was joined by Cohen, who has said getting kids back in the classroom was her top priority. She said the decision was made because of how the data points to a lower risk of transmission among younger children.

“There seems to be a different way that the virus is interacting with our younger kids. They seem to get COVID less often, they get less severely sick and they transmit it less often,” she said.

When asked why grades 6-12 can’t transition to Plan A yet, Cohen said state health leaders needed more time to study the viral spread at that age.

Since the start of the pandemic, North Carolinians ages 0-17 account for one death and 11% of all cases. Cohen reported at the conference that all of the state’s key metrics are declining and Cooper gave praise to North Carolina’s hard work.

“We are able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers. The science of lower viral spread among younger children also backs up this decision," he said. “I’m proud of our work to get to this point.”

There are currently 10 clusters in schools statewide -- impacting 16 students and 46 staff members.

Cooper did say he isn’t afraid to pull back if trends take a turn for the worse once the transition begins.

“We won’t hesitate if we believe it is necessary to pull back on these options if the health and safety of our students and educators is at risk," he said. "We did that in March at the onset of this pandemic and if we have to do that again, we will.”

Districts were given three scenarios in June for what class would 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 promoted fully remote instruction.

CMS had planned to start school with students back in classrooms for two weeks followed by remote learning indefinitely but backtracked a few weeks before school started and kicked off the fall with full remote learning.

On Wednesday, the district voted to phase students into Plan B over the next few months. Under CMS' Plan B, there will be four phases of reopening. The first kids to return to the classroom will be members of Bright Beginnings and Pre-K. The next phase will be Montessori Pre-K and grades K-5. Phase 3 will include grades 6-8, and the last phase will be high schoolers.

Proposed phases to reopen CMS:

  • Pre-K students will return Oct. 12
  • K-5 students will return Nov. 2
  • Grades 6 through 8 will return Nov. 23
  • Grades 9 through 12 would return Dec. 14 for high school EOC testing
  • High school students would return for in-person Jan. 5

In a statement following the announcement, CMS officials said the governor’s decision will not impact their plans to move forward with a phased approach to Plan B.

Iredell-Statesville School District announced that it will be ready for Oct. 5 and will be bringing back K-5 students full-time.

“We are excited to welcome back all elementary school students five days a week. We will use the next two weeks to solidify plans and schedules to ensure a smooth transition,” the district said in a statement after Cooper’s announcement.

Some parents were also surprised by the news but are looking forward to it.

“I am kind of surprised they are going back Monday through Friday,” said Iredell County parent Christina Underwood. “School is definitely a lot easier. Virtual is a struggle for us."

The North Carolina Association of Educators thinks it is unsafe to go into Plan A right now. It is not happy with Cooper’s decision.

“He made a decision that we all view as not best for students. It is unsafe. It is bad,” said Kristin Beller, with NCAE.

In an emergency Zoom call Thursday night, leaders of the NCAE strategize with their eyes now on the school boards who will ultimately decide whether children return to the classroom full-time.

“You are going to have to push your school board. The decision is now in the hands of the school board. It is not in the governor’s hands anymore. He relinquish that today. And we are going to have to push our school boards for the safest possible positions,” said Bryan Proffitt with NCAE.

Read the full statement from CMS:

Last night, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved a data-informed recommendation for CMS to begin a phased return to in-person instruction. That plan uses a well-defined set of metrics to assess readiness of facilities, staff, and public health for a return to in-person learning.

A key component of Gov. Cooper’s announcement today is that decisions on returning more students and staff to classrooms are left to school boards to make, based on what is right for individual districts. The approved recommendation voted on last night by our BOE represents a measured, evidence-based approach to returning students to our facilities in a manner that shows appropriate concern for their wellbeing, as well as for that of our staff and all CMS families. When local conditions indicate it is appropriate to bring larger numbers of students together in the classroom, we will make that recommendation to our Board.

Read the full statement from Iredell-Statesville Schools:

Governor Roy Cooper announced today that North Carolina students in grades Pre-K through fifth grade can return to school under Plan A, beginning October 5, 2020. Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent Jeff James said that I-SS will be ready. “We are excited to welcome back all elementary school students five days a week. We will use the next two weeks to solidify plans and schedules to ensure a smooth transition.”

Principals will begin working on classroom schedules, cleaning schedules, transportation plans and building logistics. “It will be important to continue with our COVID-19 protocols as much as possible,” stated Dr. James. “In order to safely bring all our elementary students back to school full-time, we will continue to enforce enhanced cleaning and sanitizing as well as mask wearing. We’ll offer mask breaks when students are six feet apart, and we will encourage schedules that keep students with their classmates to limit potential exposure as much as possible.” Our data shows that our process works as currently deployed with no student to student or student to adult transfer and limited quarantine situations. We attribute this to social distancing and wearing a face covering.

In the coming days, parents of students in grades Pre-K through 5th will learn more about the October 5th move to Plan A. “In many ways, this is sort of like the first day of school all over again, but we are excited to adjust schedules and bring back those students whose families feel comfortable to do so,” explained James.

Beginning October 5, 2020, elementary families must choose Plan A (five days a week face-to-face learning) or Plan C (all virtual learning). After October 5, families will not be able to switch between Plan A and C until the beginning of the second semester, which begins on January 5, 2021. "Families need to have discussions now about the remainder of the first semester. Students can either come to school full-time or learn virtually full-time. We simply don’t have the resources to allow families to switch back and forth between Plan A and Plan C.

Plan B, which allowed students a hybrid schedule, will no longer be an option for elementary age students after October 5, 2020. As the state continues to adjust restrictions for public schools, the district will continue to seek opportunities to bring secondary students back for more in-person instruction.

North Carolina Association of Educators released the following statement:

“As NCAE has been saying since the start of this pandemic, returning to in-person instruction is the goal for every educator in North Carolina, but it must be done safely to ensure the health of both educators and students,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger. Maintaining a minimum six-foot social distance at all times is a critical safety measure for both educators and students, and we will not recommend for any educator to enter a non-distancing classroom without a properly fitted N-95 mask to protect their health, and the health of everyone around them.”

Read the full statement from Lincoln County Schools:

Governor Cooper announced all school districts have the option to bring students back to school for in-person instruction for grades K-5 under Plan A. This option is available to all NC public school districts no earlier than October 5, 2020. The Lincoln County Schools Board of Education will meet on September 24, 2020 at 9am to review recommendations to bring back K-5 students under Plan A. Plan A will continue to emphasize safety measures such as but not limited to required face coverings for all staff and students, social distancing and symptom screening.

“I am excited about this option for our K-5 students”, stated Dr. Lory Morrow, Superintendent of Lincoln Co. Schools. “Please know there are still many unanswered questions and details that we will be working through to ensure we have the best possible outcome for our students. This option will bring us one step closer to students coming back to school for face to face instruction on a regular basis.”

Caldwell County Schools released the following statement:

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that children in kindergarten through fifth grade may return to in-person learning under the state’s least restrictive reopening Plan A as early as October 5. School districts are not mandated to implement Plan A but now they have the option.

Plan A will allow more students in the classroom by relaxing social distancing standards; however, all current health and safety preventative measures will still be in place, such as face coverings, health screenings, frequent hand washing, and sanitizing school buildings, etc.

“There are multiple health and safety factors to be considered before transitioning to Plan A,” said Superintendent Dr. Don Phipps. “We will confer with the local health officials prior to implementing any changes.”

State health officials are recommending that school districts continue with density reduction on school buses, even though Plan A does not specifically require it. However, bus riders will continue wearing face coverings while boarding, riding, and unloading. “These types of recommendations require school districts to evaluate logistical implications before making a commitment to change operations,” Phipps said.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services presented three plans this summer for reopening of schools - Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing; Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing; and Plan C: Remote Learning only. Per Gov. Cooper’s directive in July, schools could only reopen on a hybrid system (Plan B) of in-person and full remote learning or could choose a more restrictive option of online-only classes (Plan C) but could not be more lenient and return to full-time, in-person classes (Plan A).

The Caldwell County Schools reopened schools along with 51 percent of school districts across the state utilizing Plan B, a blended educational plan of both in-person and full remote instruction. State officials recognize that school districts need ample time to implement Plan A, which cannot be instituted until Oct. 5. Students in grades 6-12 must continue either on Plan B or Plan C.

“Before we move to Plan A, we will carefully evaluate the risks and benefits to our students,” Phipps said. “We are eager to get all of our students back in school, but we want to do it responsibly and safely.”

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