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By Anne Blythe
For all those parents of elementary school children in North Carolina struggling with remote learning and wondering when schools can open fully for in-person classes despite the coronavirus pandemic, the governor had an answer on Thursday.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced that on Oct. 5, public school districts and charter schools may choose to open under Plan A allowing instruction for kindergarteners through fifth graders inside full-capacity classrooms. The final decision remains up to each district to figure out what is best for the children, teachers and school staff in their areas.
“I want to be clear,” Cooper told reporters at an afternoon briefing. “Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family. Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it. Districts will have the flexibility to select a plan based on their unique situation. We are able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers.”
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, presented an update on North Carolina’s metrics and trends. The number of people visiting emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has declined in recent weeks, though the visit numbers are still higher than Cohen would like to see.
The number of COVID-19 cases has been trending downward since a spike in August related to college campus openings, but Cohen would like to see daily new case counts drop below 1,000 per day, which has been the hovering rate lately.
The positivity rate has dropped into the 5-percent range, but she wants to make sure that’s a stable metric that continues through the coming weeks.
“Most North Carolinians are doing the hard work to improve our numbers and trends,” Cooper said. “Many people are wearing masks, keeping social distance and being careful to protect others as well as themselves. We have shown that listening to the science works.
“I’m proud of our resolve.”
Both Cooper and Cohen stressed that even under Option A, with full classrooms in the lower grades, face masks will be required, temperature checks will be employed, deep cleaning and sanitization is necessary, and social distancing requirements will be employed.
‘Not an opinion’
They said research has shown that children are at lower risk for serious illness from the virus and also less likely to spread it to adults.
When weighing that with the benefits of in-person learning, particularly as many teachers, parents and younger children struggle to make the remote-learning option a meaningful education experience, Cohen and Cooper said they thought North Carolina was ready to offer Option A.
Cohen stressed the importance that face masks will play in fully opening elementary schools. Everyone in the buildings will be required to wear masks.
“This is a science- and research-based decision, not an opinion,” Cohen said. “That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of 60,000 pediatricians, recommends masks for all children two and up. I’m proud that so many North Carolinians are following this medical guidance.”
Even with all the safety precautions, Cohen acknowledged that the risk of COVID-19 spread in the schools cannot be fully eliminated.
Families also will have to consider their own health risks when weighing whether to send children back to school. If someone in the household is at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, remote learning might be a better fit.
“Regardless of the option a school district chooses, every family should have the option of remote learning,” Cohen said. “It’s up to us to protect our progress.”
Cooper’s announcement came the day after Sen. Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican campaigning against Cooper in the governor’s race, and Catherine Truitt, a Republican running to be the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, held a briefing with reporters.
This summer, when COVID-19 cases were at a high in North Carolina, Cooper told school districts they could open for remote-learning only under Option C or through Option B, providing a mix of remote learning and in-person classes with reduced class sizes.
Many districts across the state chose to start the school year in August with remote-learning only.
Some districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have already decided to move toward a phased approach that brings students with disabilities and special needs back first. Pre-kindergarteners will come in the next phase with elementary school children following several weeks later and middle schoolers on Nov. 23.
High school students will return for End-of-Course exams in mid-December, but not start in-person classes until the first week of January.
Cooper said he and his public health team had been working closely on shaping their plans with Mark Johnson, the Republican who currently is the state superintendent, and state Board of Education chairman Eric Davis.
Forest, who has been holding campaign events without requiring attendees to wear masks, even when they are inside, gained headlines on Wednesday when he said he would not mandate masks in school.
“I don’t think there’s any science that backs that up,” Forest said, according to the Associated Press. “That’s my personal opinion.”
Cooper did not mention Forest by name when he responded to a question about those remarks.
Instead, he listed off the names of doctors and public health officials — Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — all of whom have touted the efficacy of the face mask.
Challenging elected leaders discouraging mask use
“When elected leaders and people in important policy positions discourage the use of masks then that becomes part of the problem,” Cooper said. “Because what you do is increase community spread when fewer people wear masks, particularly at larger gatherings. Therefore you make it harder for us to get our children safely in school. You make it harder for us to be able to ease restrictions and to get our economy going full speed again and you make it harder to slow the spread of the virus.”
Berger posted a response to Berger Press Shop on Medium after the Cooper announcement, offering more criticism and some praise calling the governor’s action “a step in the right direction.”
“His new plan ignores the needs of low-income and exceptional students in middle and high schools for in-person instruction,” Berger said in a statement. “We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on ‘science.’ What is the science that says it’s safe for 5th graders to be in school full time, but it’s not safe for 6th graders?”
Berger also questioned why Cooper left decisions up to individual school districts to decide what is best for their area.
“It’s puzzling to me how the Governor can insist that only he can make decisions about smaller issues like playground openings, but then pass off political responsibility for something as important as schools,” Berger continued. “That’s not leadership — it’s avoiding the tough calls in an election year.”
ACC players’ parents push for stadium access
On the same day that UNC-Charlotte 49ers informed the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels that they would have to cancel Saturday’s football game because of COVID-19 cases on their team, parents of N.C. State Wolfpack players petitioned the governor on a different matter.
John Ruocchio, a Raleigh lawyer, parent of a player and a former N.C. Republican Party treasurer, led seven other Wolfpack team member parents to the state Department of Administration, where the governor’s office is, and hand-delivered a petition.
They want to know why the governor’s executive order limiting outdoor crowds to 50 people can’t be amended to allow all players on the team to invite their parents to their games.
Carter-Finley Stadium, where the Wolfpack is scheduled to play its first home game on Saturday, has the capacity to seat 57,500 people. Because of the executive order limiting outdoor crowd sizes, not all of the 110 players on the team get tickets during this season.
N.C. State is making 50 tickets available to seniors on the team, who then under NCAA rules must list who will use them. Ruochhio’s son is a senior tight end on the special teams and has invited his father to be one of the few parents present in Carter Finley Stadium on Saturday.
“I’ll be there,” Ruocchio said.
The petition, he said, is not about just one parent, though, it’s about trying to open up the experience for others. It’s also about trying to get answers to exactly why the crowd-limit is set at 50 in North Carolina, but a different number in other states.
Since ACC football season started this month, Ruocchio and other parents, as well as athletic directors and leaders of ACC schools in North Carolina, have asked Cooper to reconsider the crowd-size restriction. The Wolfpack parents’ petition asks the governor at least to explain why, inside large outdoor stadiums where social distancing could occur, all 110 members cannot invite their families.
Ruocchio said in a phone interview on Thursday that his push for answers is not political, despite his previous work with the Republican party.
He questioned why hundreds of people can be inside a Walmart or other large store, but not in an outdoor stadium.
“We just want to know why we can’t be there to support our kids,” Ruocchio said.
The state’s top public health leader said Thursday at the briefing with reporters that her public health team is looking at trends in response to the questions from parents and ACC schools.
“We very much recognize that parents want to see their kids play,” Cohen said. “We are looking at that issue as our trends continue to improve and hope to have more on that soon.”
What happened at UNC-Charlotte
Playing a contact sport amid a pandemic in which face masks have been touted as the best tool for limiting the spread of COVID-19 comes with challenges.
UNC-Charlotte announced on Thursday that it had to cancel its scheduled game against the Tar Heels because many members of its offensive line were in quarantine because of the school’s contact tracing protocols.
During the past two weeks, according to a news release from the athletic department, three players had tested positive for COVID-19. Those players are in isolation and receiving medical care, the release states. The other players affected had been notified by contact tracers to quarantine for 14 days.
“We’re extremely disappointed to have to cancel our game at North Carolina. While I know our team is heartbroken, due to the number of players in quarantine, we could not safely play,” Athletic Director Mike Hill said in a statement.
These kinds of issues have cropped up on other campuses.
Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren spoke about the challenges during a briefing with reporters on Monday highlighting the Wake Forest game scheduled for Saturday.
“The biggest challenge in all this has been the contact tracing piece,” Doeren said.
Some things are similar across the ACC campuses.
Practicing and planning for what the team might look like on game day can be difficult if players are waiting for test results to come back for someone they have been around or if they’re in quarantine because of safety protocols.
“There isn’t really a unified way of doing that and I think that’s been the biggest issue where you have, in our case, multiple tests a week for guys who are completely healthy and passing tests but are unable to come work on their skills because somebody that they were around at a certain point in time has symptoms or has a positive test,” Doeren said. “That has been the hardest piece to manage. As you all know, the symptoms for this, there’s many, many symptoms. So a guy can wake up with a stuffy nose and all of a sudden his three roommates can’t come in until that player passes a test. So you can have a position group be completely healthy and not be able to come into the building for a long period of time.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:
- 3,180 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 189,576 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 894 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.
- 162,257 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. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
- To date, 2,714,175 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
- People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (41 percent). While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 332 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,286 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 970 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.