NC approves new rules for in-person school. Some say they don’t go far enough

T. Keung Hui
·5 min read

North Carolina public schools will now be required to offer in-person classes instead of providing only online classes to students.

The State Board of Education approved Thursday a school reopening resolution saying public schools must offer at least some in-person instruction by the end of March. The board also adopted updated state Department of Health and Human Services guidelines saying school districts and charter schools should only use remote learning for higher-risk students and for families who want remote learning.

“It is absolutely essential that we get our students back into school,” said state board chairman Eric Davis. “Every student, every day into every school.”

But some state board members and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt complained that the changes still don’t give middle schools and high schools the flexibility to offer daily in-person classes.

“We need a definitive road map about how this is going to work because it’s not just impacting the kids who aren’t able to get back into the classroom,” said State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a member of the state board. “It’s also impacting the parents who can’t get back to work because their kid is not in the classroom.”

Lawmakers want to bypass Cooper

The vote comes as most of North Carolina’s school districts and many charter schools have already resumed in-person classes. But the change means some students who haven’t had in-person classes since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 will now have to be allowed back on campus if they want to return.

The past year has seen a drop in student grades and test scores. School districts estimate that 23% of their students are at risk of academic failure and not being promoted at the end of the school year.

A growing number of parents have become more vocal about the pace of school reopening has been too slow for them.

The proposed DHHS changes aren’t enough to satisfy Senate Republicans who intend to push forward with overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a school reopening bill.

Senate Bill 37 would go further than allowed by Cooper and DHHS in saying that all grade levels can operate under “minimal social distancing” rules called Plan A. The legislation also requires school districts to offer daily in-person instruction to special-education students of all grade levels.

In addition, House Speaker Tim Moore announced Thursday that the House Education Committee will consider a bill next week requiring five school districts to offer Plan A to all grade levels. It’s a local bill so wouldn’t need to go to Cooper.

DHHS is only allowing Plan A for elementary schools. The lower social distancing requirements allow them to offer students five days a week of in-person classes.

Davis said it’s the state board’s preference, but not a requirement, that all elementary schools move to Plan A.

Rules for middle, high schools questioned

DHHS is requiring middle schools and high schools to stay on Plan B, which requires 6 feet of social distancing in classrooms. Due to the requirements, most secondary schools are offering students a mix of in-person and online classes or no in-person classes at all.

“It is not adequate because Plan B, essentially for middle and high school students, means that they are in class with their teachers 20% of the time, and we know that’s not working,” Truitt said.

Susan Gale Perry, DHHS chief deputy secretary, said they want to move to Plan A but aren’t ready to recommend that for middle schools and high schools.

Gale Perry pointed to how 99 of the state’s 100 counties still have such high rates of COVID transmission that they meet federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance saying 6 feet of social distancing is required for middle schools and high schools.

Gale Perry also said that science backs up requiring the greater social distancing for middle schools and high schools.

“While our older children tend to transmit in the same way as adults do, younger children have much lower rates of transmissiblity, and that’s why we see that difference there,” she said.

Truitt said DHHS needs to publicly reveal the metrics of when the change will be made. She said 3 feet of social distancing is sufficient for these older students.

“We need more clarity,” Truitt said. “It feels like we are pushing the goalposts and kicking the can down the street.”

Davis, the board chairman, said the board will be ready to call a special meeting when DHHS says all schools can use Plan A.

Free testing kits for schools

Starting Thursday, all of the state’s public schools can begin requesting free COVID-19 antigen tests from DHHS. It’s an expansion of a pilot program where 53,000 free tests were given to 17 school districts and 11 charter schools from December through February.

Schools will get access to the testing kits through the end of the school year. It’s based on the recent CDC guidance recommending COVID testing as part of the strategy for school reopening.

The expanded testing program comes as DHHS says almost 50,000 K-12 and child care employees have received COVID-19 vaccinations since Feb. 24, when the state opened up vaccine prioritization to them. Board member Amy White questioned the need for the tests now that vaccinations are more widespread.

Dr. Betsey Cuervo Tilson, the state health director and DHHS chief medical officer, explained that they know that some people will refuse to be vaccinated. She also said they know that the vaccines aren’t 100% effective.

“This is an extra layer of protection that schools can add on to,” Cuervo Tilson said. “It’s not meant as a way to invoke lack of confidence in the vaccine, but just that nothing is 100% and all these layers of prevention strategy lower the risk as much as possible.”

NC School Reopening Resolution by Keung Hui on Scribd

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