NCAE, lawmakers react to NC school reopening plans

NCDHHS Safe Schools guidance on face coverings guidance significantly altered

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, science teachers Ann Darby, left, and Rosa Herrera check-in students before a summer STEM camp at Wylie High School Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Wylie, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

RALEIGH — The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) and state lawmakers reacted differently to Gov. Roy Cooper’s school reopening announcement on Tuesday.

“Educators want to be back in school buildings. We miss and value the relationships we have with students and their families. The careful approach Governor Cooper has taken in all of his re-opening decisions has been deeply appreciated, and while we understand that this was a difficult choice, we must make the safety of our educators and students the first priority,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NCAE, in a statement.

Kelly went on to make “false dichotomy” remarks similar to that of National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García.

“Unfortunately, educators and parents have been presented with a false dichotomy: the public schools we love, or our safety. We can have both,” said Kelly. “In order to safely re-open all schools in a way that will protect the health of both students and educators, a significant amount of resources is required. The General Assembly has simply refused to appropriate them.”

The General Assembly has appropriated around $1 billion in funds dedicated to schools since the pandemic began.  Lawmakers have authorized $600 million for K-12 education and nearly $400 million in federal CARES Act money.

“Gov. Cooper’s plan gets students halfway to where they need to be. But much like jumping over a creek, halfway doesn’t cut it,” Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said in a statement.

“The Governor’s plan makes worse the very inequities a public school system is supposed to resolve. Students whose parents do not have the time or resources to supplement ‘virtual’ schooling will fall even further behind simply because of the condition of their birth. That’s an unspeakable travesty,” Berger said.

Berger went on to ask about parents what parents are supposed to do who can’t take off work to be home for remote learning days. He said that if parents are allowed to pick full remote learning, then parents should also be allowed to “choose full in-person learning as well.”

Mixed in with Cooper’s reopening statements was that all K-12 school children, from “Kindergarten through high school,” would be forced to wear a mask while at school, which is questioned by Berger.

“I also have serious questions about the requirement for masks on five-year-olds, which contradicts the Cooper Administration’s own guidance for child care centers,” said Berger. “What happens when a kindergartner removes a mask? Does the Governor really expect teachers to have any chance of enforcing this mandate?”

The first version of the reopening schools guidance published by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and N.C. State Board of Education in mid-June did not mandate masks for all students nor did it have a dedicated section for “face coverings.” The guidebook, titled “Lighting Our Way Forward,” has been referred to by the State Supt. Mark Johnson as a “living document” which can change at any time.

The latest version now includes a section for “Cloth Face Coverings.” This new section states that these coverings must be worn by staff, visitors and “students in middle and high school settings,” but there is no mention of elementary students wearing masks.

Adding to the confusion, the face coverings section in “Lighting Our Way Forward” refers to the June 26 recommendations made by N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). Those recommendations state that face coverings do not need to be worn by anyone “under eleven (11) years of age” in a business setting, but has no details on students being required to wear a mask or face covering in school.

The NCDHHS’s Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, first published on June 9, addresses school settings specifically was significantly altered in the area of face coverings as of July 14. The section on face coverings recommends visiting the CDC website, which as of June 28 recommends that  “all people 2 years of age and older wear a cloth face covering in public settings.”

Johnson didn’t mention the governor’s child mask mandate but did say that he “doesn’t support everything in Governor Cooper’s plan.” He also said he is “100% supportive of North Carolina’s students, educators, and families and that we all work together to support our schools the best we can.”

While I am glad Governor Cooper provided more flexibility by lifting the 50% occupancy limits on schools, I would prefer we go further with a plan that is built around local control to facilitate greater flexibility for communities based on their metrics,” said Johnson in a press release.

Catherine Truitt, the Republican candidate vying for Johnson’s job, asked of Cooper’s announcement, “this is what we’ve been waiting for? Basically, ‘here’s the instructions, now go figure it out’?”

“I still remain convinced that local control is the best way to ensure that all children receive the education that they need and deserve,” said Truitt. “Our local superintendents and school officials know how to keep our children safe without asking permission from Governor Cooper.”

Truitt said that Cooper’s announcement “is a one-size-fits-all solution dressed up to look like local control.”

On the face-covering mandate rolled out by Cooper today, Truitt said that she can’t imagine how young elementary students will be able to faithfully wear a mask all day.

“Anyone who has ever taught school knows how nearly impossible it will be to keep masks on our youngest students,” said Truitt, adding that older elementary students not wearing masks at home or at play will also be miserable having to wear them all day at school.

While talking about masks, Truitt mentioned that children are not typically spreaders of the virus likely because “their viral loads are low.” She also referenced a recent CDC update that, in essence, says kids are more likely to get the flu. According to that CDC update, for children up to age 17, “cumulative COVID-19 hospitalization rates are much lower than cumulative influenza hospitalization rates at comparable time points* during recent influenza seasons.”

Democratic candidate for state superintendent, Jen Mangrum, also issued a statement released by the N.C. Democratic Party praising Cooper’s Plan B roll out. Mangrum has been endorsed by the NCAE.

“I applaud the prudence and leadership Governor Cooper showed today in unveiling his plan for reopening our public schools,” said Mangrum, adding that “‘Plan B’ puts in place clear safety standards to protect our students, educators and staff while giving local school leaders the leeway they need to make preparations and choices that best suit the needs of every district.”

Mangrum continued, “As the Governor said today, the situation can change quickly and we must continue to be vigilant and make the necessary adjustments to this plan based on the science and the facts.”

Per Cooper’s press release, under Plan B, schools are required to follow key safety measures that include:

  • Require face coverings for all teachers and students K-12
  • Limit the total number of students, staff and visitors within a school building to the extent necessary to ensure 6 feet distance can be maintained when students/staff will be stationary
  • Conduct symptom screening, including temperature checks
  • Establish a process and dedicated space for people who are ill to isolate and have transportation plans for ill students
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in the school and transportation vehicles regularly
  • Require frequent hand washing throughout the school day and provide hand sanitizer at entrances and in every classroom
  • Discontinue activities that bring together large groups
  • Limit nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups
  • Discontinue use of self-service food or beverage distribution

In addition, schools are strongly recommended to follow additional safety measures that include:

  • Designate hallways and entrance/exit doors as one-way
  • Keep students and teachers in small groups that stay together as much as possible
  • Have meals delivered to the classroom or have students bring food back to the classroom if social distancing is not possible in the cafeteria
  • Discontinue activities that bring together large groups
  • Place physical barriers such as plexiglass at reception desks and similar areas

The governor did not address how long Plan B will last.

About A.P. Dillon 1133 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_