BREAKING: NC schools can reopen at reduced capacity

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Cooper’s plan gives CMS option of hybrid in-person/remote instruction or all-virtual learning; re-opening Phase 2 extended 3 weeks

School buses will hit the streets again next month. This fleet of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school buses parked in east Charlotte have been off the road since March, when schools abruptly closed due to Covid-19. (Photo by Kevin Young/@The5and2Project)

by Cristina Bolling

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday gave school districts the option of reopening at reduced capacity or opting for full remote learning, giving families and school employees a bit more of a glimpse at what the coming school year might look like.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board still needs to meet to decide which path to take, but CMS and other districts across the state have been discussing for weeks how they’d enact three reopening scenarios the state floated last month. The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is July 21, but the board could call a special meeting sooner to discuss reopening.

CMS officials have been focusing recently on the hybrid in-person/virtual model, which involves splitting students into three groups. Students would spend one week in school and two weeks at home learning remotely. (Some schools, particularly those in the southern part of the county, are at more than 150% capacity, so splitting the student body in half wouldn’t adequately reduce overcrowding.)

The district has said that any family that wishes to have their students learn remotely may do so, and this week released a video explaining the remote learning program and giving a sample of a first-grade lesson.

Face masks, temperature checks for all: Cooper said districts will have to follow certain requirements to re-open buildings to students:

  • All students, teachers and staff in grades K-12 will have to wear face masks. The state will provide at least five reusable, cloth face masks for every student, teacher and staff member, he said.

  • The number of people in a school building must be limited to allow for 6 feet of social distancing.

  • Students and school employees must have their temperature checked every day as they enter school.

  • Schools need a plan to isolate and send home children who have coronavirus symptoms.

  • School schedules must allow for frequent hand washing. Classrooms, bathrooms, buses and equipment must be regularly cleaned.

  • Non-essential visitors and activities involving outside organizations will be limited.

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

Limited specifics: Cooper and Mandy Cohen, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, said districts will have detailed plans in place dictating what to do if students or staff come down with Covid-19, but she was limited on giving specifics of the plans.

She said a coronavirus case in a school “doesn’t mean immediately that a school needs to close,” but said contact tracing and evaluating the student’s school environment would need to happen.

Cooper didn’t give specific answers when asked by reporters how districts would handle teachers or staff who are at risk for Covid-19 and feel unsafe returning to school buildings.

He said the N.C. High School Athletic Association will make the call about whether high school sports can proceed.

‘No easy answers’: With only 31 days to go until the Aug. 17 start of the school year, families are in a tight spot to make plans for how they’ll handle kids who can’t go back to school full time. The situation is spinning many families into a long-term childcare crisis.

In deciding whether to reopen schools, state and county officials have to weigh the risks of spreading the virus with the risks of keeping kids home who rely on school for meals and a safe environment.

Cohen said research has shown that children are less likely to be infected with Covid-19, and experience milder symptoms than adults.

Phase 2 extended: Cooper’s executive order keeping the state in Phase 2 was due to expire on Friday, but he extended it Tuesday until at least Aug. 7. That means bars and gyms remain closed.

“Our virus trends are not spiking like some other states,” Cooper said. “We have hospital capacity and our percent positive is still high but it’s steady. However, our numbers are still troubling and they could jump higher in the blink of an eye.”

Cohen said North Carolina’s virus rates “continue to simmer, but we’ve avoided boiling over as many states are doing now.”

What does the data say?: Cooper has said all summer that he is relying on the data to make decisions on schools and re-opening businesses.

In Mecklenburg County, the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive is holding stable. Hospitalizations are increasing, but Novant and Atrium health systems released a joint statement Friday saying they are at 80% capacity and aren’t worried about becoming overrun with coronavirus patients. County Manager Dena Diorio said Monday that there is no current talk of opening a field hospital.

The percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive in Mecklenburg County has been following a stable trend, as shown in this data released by the county today.

Hospitalizations at Novant and Atrium health systems have seen a steady climb, but leaders of the systems said in recent days that they’re they’re not worried about capacity.

CDC director’s take: On a Monday visit to Charlotte, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that he believes keeping students home is a bigger public health threat than sending them back to classrooms:

7.1 million children in this nation get their mental health services at school. Many students get their breakfast and lunch at school. Schools are really important for mandatory reporting of child abuse or sexual abuse. Obviously the socialization that occurs in school is important.

I think it’s important on the other side, from the public health side, to realize that this virus fortunately really has very limited demonstrated ability to cause significant morbidity and mortality in children. To date, of over 118K of the first deaths we had from February to July, 51 were in individuals under the age of 18.

Reach managing editor Cristina Bolling: cristina@cltledger.com

Related: With kids invisible during isolation, abuse risks mount

For an aerial video of school buses by Ledger partner @The5and2Project, click here.

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith