shows a crowded hallway filled with kids with backpacks.
Photo credit: Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr Creative Commons

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By Anne Blythe

Public school teachers and parents of the more than 1.5 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade will have to wait a bit longer to learn whether there will be a return to classrooms in August, and if so, how that will be done.

Acknowledging that he had been hearing from teachers worried about a return to in-classroom instruction in the middle of a pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper postponed a previously planned announcement about whether he would recommend a full return to the classroom, go for a hybrid plan or ask parents to once again engage in remote learning for their children.

“We want our schools open for in-person instruction in August,” Cooper said at an afternoon briefing with reporters. “The classroom is the best place that children can learn. Recent reports recommend it, and I know many parents and children agree with this. School is where children learn academics, but it’s also how they build their social skills, get reliable meals, stay physically fit and really become tomorrow’s leaders.”

Since easing social distancing restrictions in late May, the state’s trends and metrics for measuring the presence and impact of COVID-19 have shown deterioration in a state that slowed the virus spread in an early and aggressive shutdown. During the reopening, North Carolina has not seen the same surge that some southern states did, but the new trends are troublesome to public health leaders.

North Carolina reported 1,843 new lab-confirmed cases on Wednesday, its highest daily number during the pandemic.

Additionally, 901 people were hospitalized, a number that troubles public health officials trying to stave off the overwhelming system capacity issues that forced Arizona, Texas and Florida to close bars, gyms and some restaurants that had reopened.

“We want to get our students back in the classroom, and we want to make sure that we get this right,” said Cooper. “My number one opening priority is classroom doors.”

Cooper, who often talks of his mother, a teacher, encouraged local school districts across the state to continue developing plans with a special focus on protecting teachers, staff and students, particularly those with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness and complications.

Cooper had set the first of July as the date he would announce which of three basic plans that districts would be asked to follow to re-open in August. He did not specify how much longer he would wait to make that decision.

Gov. Roy Cooper prepares to take off his Canes mask before speaking during a briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, July 1. Cooper started his press conference by noting, “One great thing about wearing a mask is that you can express yourself. Y’all probably know I’m a Carolina Hurricanes fan.” Photo credit: NC Dept of Public Safety

The plans laid out several weeks ago included:

  • In-classroom teaching and learning with some social-distancing restrictions;
  • A hybrid with some remote learning and in-classroom learning; or
  • Remote teaching only, similar to what happened from March to June.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services and a mother of two school-age children, has been urging North Carolinians to embrace the face mask as a virus-slowing tool so the children can get back to in-classroom learning in August.

“COVID-19 is formidable,” Cohen said. “It has caused each of us to weigh the benefits and risks of actions like never before. Seemingly small actions like wearing a face covering, waiting 6 feet apart and washing our hands often now have an outsized impact, not only on our own lives, but the lives of all North Carolinians, including our children.”

Cohen cited a recent report put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics to champion the collective push for people to take more responsibility upon themselves to keep the virus spread as low as possible so schools can reopen.

“Schools are fundamental to child development and well-being and provide our children with academic instruction, social emulsion skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical speech and mental health therapy and opportunity for physical activity amongst other benefits.

“While missing school is harmful to our kids,” Cohen said, “the emerging scientific evidence is that going to school is less of a risk as we think about the potential spread of COVID-19.”

International research, according to Cohen, shows thus far that schools have not played a significant role in the spreading of COVID-19.

Children, particularly younger children, are less likely to be infected with COVID-19, Cohen said the studies show. Those children who have been infected with the virus, Cohen added, seemed to be less likely to transmit it to others.

“We’ll continue to have to evaluate the scientific research carefully … but the current science is encouraging,” Cohen said. “This is critical because decisions to open school cannot just be about the children, but also must consider the health and well-being of our educators.”

Schools in the coming months will need face coverings and other protections, and the state has started distributing personal protective equipment to districts.

“Our teachers are smart, dedicated and anxious to get back to the classroom with their students,” Cohen said. “We have to support them so they can do just that. My dad was a middle school teacher and a guidance counselor and that’s what I would want for him.”

The novel coronavirus thrust itself upon the world only a little more than six months ago in a virulent and mysterious way that continues to vex scientists, health care workers and researchers. New research, sometimes contradictory, is published daily about the virus and how to treat the disease caused by it.

Over time, though, physicians have learned more about how to better treat those who become seriously ill with COVID-19. Scientists have also been able to learn more about what helps slow the spread as well as who seems to become more sickened.

Still Cooper said his team and public health officials need to get more buy-in from the teachers and school staff who will be among children who sometimes do not follow instructions.

“We’ve learned a lot more in the last few weeks with the studies that have come about,” Cooper said. “We’re working to get more buy-in from teachers and the people who are on the ground to make sure they understand all of the requirements in the plan.”

Local school districts will have to make decisions that apply to their models, too, Cooper stressed.

“This decision about reopening schools and how we do it safely to make sure our kids are learning is one of the most important,” Cooper said. “We want to make sure we’re getting it right.”

Cooper, who has advocated for higher teacher pay during his four years as governor, noted the difficulties of being a teacher outside a pandemic.

In recent weeks, Cooper’s administration, as well as the state school superintendent and the board of education, have been talking with principals, teachers and others to try to develop a plan that has the flexibility to deal with any changes in the virus or sudden case surges.

“We’re in a new situation here, it’s extraordinary,” Cooper said. “It’s already hard enough being an educator and a student in a public school and a principal. Those jobs are so hard. Now you’re going to have to layer on all of the sanitation, the social distancing, the wearing of face coverings and making sure that we’re protecting everybody to the greatest extent possible.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday afternoon:

  • 1,373 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 66,513 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 901 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 45,538 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
  • More than 942,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
  • A plurality of the cases (45 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 12 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 79 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 217 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities. An outbreak is defined as two or more positive cases in a facility.
  • There are 3,385 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 822 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

 

Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.