RALEIGH — Elected officials and parents held a press conference on Sept. 16 making the case that remote instruction has been a disaster and asking Gov. Roy Cooper to open up North Carolina schools.
Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) led the press conference and was joined by several legislators, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, and state superintendent candidate Catherine Truitt.
“For far too many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds already at a risk of being left behind and students with exceptional needs, virtual learning is a slow-motion train wreck,” said Berger in his opening remarks. He added that Harvard experts say these students may never recover.
“Gov. Cooper created this mess, and he needs to fix it by directing school districts to accept students for full-time instruction if their parents choose it,” said Berger. “He needs to direct school districts to give parents the option of full-time, five-day a week instruction now.”
Cooper’s reopening of schools was delayed by several weeks and did not settle on just one of the three plans for reopening approved by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services and the N.C. State Board of Education. The governor announced the state’s schools could use Plan B, a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, but then also said schools could use Plan C – remote learning only. The lack of decisiveness resulted in state’s districts opting for Plan C, impacting nearly one million of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students.
Berger also referred to a study by the OECD which cites an estimated economic impact and that “students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect some 3 percent lower income over their entire lifetimes.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said that the A-B-C plan produced by the governor and state health officials was a “failed plan.”
“Children need to be in the classroom. They must be in the classroom,” said Forest. “Scientists from around the world and child experts from around the world, including many here in the United States, have said our kids need to be in the classroom.”
Forest said it’s time to open up schools and that parents need to have the option of sending their kids back into the classroom. He said the state’s school system was not set up for virtual learning and that only last year the state achieved broadband connectivity for all schools.
Truitt said that the best option for students is to be in the classroom with their teacher but “sadly, this is not even an option on the table.” She went on to echo concerns of the physical and mental health of students during remote instruction.
“When schools stay closed, we are upholding one form of safety over another,” said Truitt. “Not getting the virus or not getting the services needed that prevent child abuse, neglect, mental health issues, as well as falling behind academically such that a child may never catch up.”
Parents speak out
Four Wake County area parents, Tara Deane, Sandy Joiner, Michele Morrow and Tracy Taylor were also on hand and spoke out about the need to open K-12 schools. Morrow, a mother of five, is also a registered nurse.
First of the parents to speak was Deane, who has four children in Wake County Public Schools. She said all four are suffering under remote learning, but her remarks focused on two children adopted from China who both have extreme disabilities that include autism, albinism, cognitive and visual impairments and they are non-verbal.
“I want a voice and a choice for my children,” said Deane. “I am sick of them being used as pawns in a political game.”
Deane said that the effects of remote instruction have been “devastating” and have led to “complete regression.
“Remote learning was never and will never be an option for them,” Deane said of her two adopted children. She added that “Virtual learning cannot be accomplished when your child can’t verbalize and won’t look at the screen.”
“COVID-19 isn’t killing my children right now, but they are dying inside from a lack of schedule, socialization, education, and due to total isolation,” Deane said. She begged that children like hers be at the forefront of decision making.
Taylor, a mother of two high school students and a Doctor of Physical Therapy, cited members a Duke-tied medical group that spoke at the Wake County School Board meeting. Doctors with that group said metrics are driven by who takes the test and warned about over-reliance on such metrics. One of the doctors, Dr. Benjamin, also said that “younger children are less likely to spread this virus than older children,” and that there will be COVID cases “whether schools open or not.”
“His point was that we need to get the kids back in school,” said Taylor. “And we can’t wait on a vaccine and we can’t wait for the metrics to drop.” In addition to a number of mental health, abuse and learning issues, Taylor also said students were getting way too much screen time.
Morrow, a nurse for 28 years, highlighted that children under the age of 20 are not impacted by COVID like older individuals are and are less likely to spread the virus. She also noted that the science indicates the mortality rate is comparable to that of the flu.
“We have to open our schools for in-school instruction,” said Morrow. “The decisions that have been made over the last four months specifically considering what facilities can and cannot function are not only illogical, they’re also inconsistent.”
Morrow gave an example of daycares that have been allowed to stay open while teachers at elementary school students have been “told to stay home.”
Districts, schools moving back to in-person
Some examples of districts and schools that have opened for in-person instruction were commented on during the press conference that included Mount Airy and Thales Academy.
Mount Airy City Schools has essentially been operating normally, with 75 percent of their students attending school every day for in-person instruction. Any individual cases of COVID in the district have been handled with cleanings and contact tracing. Similarly, Thales Academy conducted similar measures after a COVID case in a fourth-grade class.
On the eve of the press conference, Lee County schools unanimously voted to return to in-person instruction in staggered groups. Elementary student groups would rotate in starting Oct. 5 and middle school student groups on Oct. 19. High school options are still being worked out.
The same night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board released plans to return students to the classroom through a multi-month tiered approach. The decision follows a Sept. 6 lawsuit filed by five parents in the district over the lack of in-person instruction.
North Carolina’s largest district, Wake County, has yet to produce a plan to return to in-person instruction and it may be due to self-inflicted staffing issues related to the district’s “Virtual Academy.”
Masks steal focus from student suffering
At the end of the press conference, several reporters directed questions on student mask usage only to Forest, who is running for governor and has been open about not wearing a mask at campaign events.
“Science is not a one-size-fits-all. You’d have no science without skepticism. All science is based on skepticism. And you need to have skeptics,” said Forest. “As governor, I would open the schools. That would be the plan. The schools can determine how they do that safely.”
Berger said that local officials should be making decisions about masks and that parents can decide if they want their kids to go back.
“This is about getting our kids back in school, not about my personal preferences or what I do on the campaign trail or even what those other folks in North Carolina want to do,” Forest told to a WRAL reporter who had asked the same question about masks as three others.
Forest also said he would “would lift the mask mandate for the state and allow individual freedom for the state.” He said that while doesn’t personally believe wearing a mask, but that if a parent or school wants their child to wear one then they should.
Cooper’s campaign issued a statement criticizing Forest, but the governor has not yet offered a public or press statement on the matter. Cooper instead chose to tweet a picture from his official Twitter account of himself putting a mask. The tweet reads “The science is clear — masks work. They’re our best weapon we have to fight this virus right now, and wearing them helps boost our economy.”
After the meeting, Forest posted a video of Morrow, a nurse, who said children should not be wearing masks, especially outside.