By Liora Engel-Smith

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that all North Carolina K-12 schools will close for at least two weeks starting Monday in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The announcement came on the heels of news that a Wake County Public Schools teacher had tested positive for the virus.

The executive order to shut down schools also includes a prohibition on gatherings of more than 100 people, Cooper said. The order is a step up from last week’s guidance to curtail mass gatherings across the state.

“I don’t want any regrets in our rearview mirror when this pandemic subsides,” Cooper said. “I’m guided by a clear goal: doing all we can to keep people from getting sick and make sure that those who do have excellent care and treatment.”

graphic including an image of coronavirus

The statewide closure comes as 23 people in 12 counties tested positive for the new respiratory virus, up from 15 positive patients on Friday.

Cooper, made his announcement in a press conference Saturday afternoon after the state board of education held a closed door meeting earlier in the afternoon. He said the decision to close schools was a response to mounting anxiety surrounding the coronavirus but was not related to the teacher who tested positive.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure that we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout that comes when you don’t have children in school,” Cooper said.

He acknowledged that the closure could cause hardship for parents, particularly those with low incomes. He announced the creation of a nutrition and education task force that will work to address these challenges. Cooper said the working group will also focus on children of health care workers who need to be available to respond to the pandemic.

Efforts to contain the virus and supporting K-12 schools in the process have been bipartisan, said Mark Johnson, superintendent of public instruction, who praised Cooper during the press conference.

“This is the decision no one wanted to see happen, but it is the right decision,” he added.

The North Carolina Association of Educators also expressed agreement with the decision.

“Ultimately, we think this is the correct decision,” said NCAE president Mark Jewell in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Cooper’s careful consideration of all the impacts a statewide closure of our public school system would have on educators, students, parents, and the wider community.”

The announcement came a day after NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen urged against preemptive school closings even as some districts announced they would close schools.

Cohen said the closing of schools is incredibly hard and complex but said she supported it. Later in the press conference, Cohen said that though none of the 23 cases are a result of community coronavirus transmission, officials are working aggressively to contain the disease.

Cohen said the Wake County Public Health Department is working to trace people who came in contact with the teacher who tested positive so she did not know if any schoolchildren would have to be tested for the virus.

This story has been updated with information from the NC Association of Educators.

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Liora Engel-Smith

Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...