CHARLOTTE — Gov. Roy Cooper is warning the public about the consequences of the spread of COVID-19 as the state’s case and hospitalization numbers reach new highs. North Carolina recorded the highest one-day increase in cases over the weekend, and the number of virus-related deaths now exceeds 1,000.
New health guidelines released Monday represent the first step to help North Carolina K-12 public schools find a safe way to open to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year, health and education leaders announced.
Cooper pushed Monday to get public schools back open in the fall and State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said the state will release guidelines for safely reopening schools -- both from a health and operational standpoint.
Cooper said that the reopening of the public schools in August could be in jeopardy if health precautions aren’t taken seriously.
“We want to reopen school buildings, but we won’t open them and make a reckless decision when it’s so important,” Cooper said.
The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) lays out a comprehensive set of baseline health practices that public schools should follow to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19 for students, staff, and families. In addition to specific requirements, the Toolkit recommends practices that schools should implement to minimize spread of COVID-19 while allowing in-person teaching to resume.
"Getting children back to school to learn is a high priority, but they must be able to do so in the safest way possible,” said Cooper. “Every child, family and public school educator in North Carolina deserves strong protection to lower the risk of virus spread.”
Some of the guidance, Cooper said, includes measures such as screening students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms, keeping students physically distanced, and instructing students not to share pencils and textbooks.
Schools are asked to plan for reopening under three scenarios:
- Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing
- Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing
- Plan C: Remote Learning Only
NC DHHS, in consultation with the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, will announce by July 1 which of the three plans should be implemented for schools to most safely reopen. The remaining plans may be needed if the state’s COVID-19 metrics change over time.
“Today, North Carolinians have the important first step of returning to schools in the fall with this release of the final health guidance for schools from the NC Department of Health and Human Services,” Superintendent Johnson said. “In addition, the North Carolina education agency has already been leading workgroups, comprised of diverse stakeholders from teachers to school staff to superintendents to other support professionals, to create draft operational strategies that will help our school systems prepare for the fall. We will now seek feedback on the draft operational strategies from other stakeholders across the state to ensure that we best capture the needs of all our schools.”
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen clarified that, like with Phase 2 of reopening, schools will be given a list of both required actions and recommended actions for students and faculty. Johnson said if North Carolina’s metrics are trending in the right direction when schools open, then school districts will be able to make individual choices for how they implement recommended guidelines.
However, if trends move in the wrong direction, Johnson said, then schools will have to follow much stricter guidelines.
On Monday Cohen said current trends aren’t looking good.
“COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing and stand at 739 statewide. And the percent of tests that are positive is now among the highest in the nation,” Cohen said. “I am concerned.”
Cohen cited more movement -- specifically, the loosening of restrictions across the state before Memorial Day Weekend -- as a driver of these increasing trends, adding that it takes two weeks to see the impact of policy changes on COVID-19 trends.
Both Cohen and Cooper asked anyone who has attended a mass gathering in the last few weeks -- including protests, religious services, parties, sporting events, or even a crowded tourist destination -- to get tested, even if you are not displaying symptoms.
Cooper reinforced the concerning upward trends when answering questions about the RNC in Charlotte and the bill in the state General Assembly allowing gyms and bars to reopen.
“I’d rather open schools than bars,” Cooper said. “We need to keep our focus on doing things to get our numbers in such a position that we can open schools.”
Cooper echoed a proposal he introduced last week of a Phase 2.5 that would allow bars and gyms to reopen in some capacity ahead of Phase 3.
“It’s most important to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians while we work to boost the economy,” Cooper said. “These decisions can be difficult but we know that health and safety have to come first.”
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