After parent outcry and lawmaker pressure, Cooper allows schools to hold in-person learning

State Supt. Truitt pushed for the return to in-person instruction; Sen. Berger blames failure to educate children on Cooper’s indecisiveness

Gov. Roy Cooper briefs media on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Photo via NC Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper said the state’s schools should return to in-person instruction at today’s COVID-19 press conference.

During a Council of State meeting earlier in the day, Truitt said that she and Davis would join today’s COVID-19 briefing in “an effort to urge our districts across the state to re-open our schools to in-person learning.”

Cooper did not issue a new executive order at the briefing, but instead indicated that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) will be updated. The updated language says all K-12 schools should “return to in-person five days a week to the fullest extent possible” while adhering to safety protocols such as social distancing. Language in the guidance on masks being required remained unchanged.

When asked why there was no executive order, Cooper said there was no order “because districts want to know what state believes” and that “we are giving them that guidance today.” He said that they will let districts make the decision accordingly.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) issued a press statement pushing Cooper to place educators at the top of the vaccination list if he intends to reopen schools for in-person learning.

“If Governor Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Kelly also said local school boards should “continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions,” while citing “emerging and increasingly virulent strains of COVID.”

The governor’s actions struck some legislators as belated, as state lawmakers had signaled near the end of January they would take action and the senate has already drafted a bill to reopen the state’s school for in-person instruction.

“Gov. Cooper has not acted decisively and the public education bureaucracy has rejected its most fundamental task: educating our children. It’s time for this travesty to end,” Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said in a Jan. 28 press release.

Senate Bill 37, titled “In-Person Learning Choice for Families,” passed its first reading and testimony from parents was heard just an hour before Cooper’s announcement. The bill instructs all state school districts to follow the Dec. 4, 2020 version of the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) by implementing Plan A (Minimal Social Distancing) and Plan B (Moderate Social Distancing).  While the bill specifically instructs districts to offer Plan A and Plan B, it also says a remote option should be available for students who still wish to participate in them.

Citing a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Senate Bill 37 on the “dramatic increase in children’s mental health visits to hospital emergency rooms.” The CDC reports an increase of 24% for children ages 5–11 and 30% for children between the ages of 12–17 when comparing emergency room rates from April to October of 2020 and the same months in 2019.

“Among all the COVID tragedies, the most preventable is the lost learning potential that, for some kids, will last a lifetime. After hearing from so many parents and teachers, we have to act immediately to return children to the classroom to stop further damage,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga). Ballard sits on the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee and the Senate Appropriations on Education/Higher Education committee.

“I’m glad he’s finally listening to parents, science, our own researchers from Duke and UNC on the ABC Collaborative, and legislators,” Ballard told North State Journal about the governor’s impending school actions. “I don’t know what changed his mind, but we need to guarantee students have access to in-person learning. At this time, we still plan on moving ahead with our bill to reopen schools.”

Wake County Parent Kelly Rogers Mann has led a parent group seeking the return to in-person instruction.

“The bill is so ultra important,” said Mann who spoke at Ballard’s committee meeting Feb. 2. Mann said that the bill needs to continue to move forward regardless of what the governor says at his press conference. She also noted that the state’s two largest districts, Wake and Mecklenburg, “should be leading the way” but are currently in Plan C, remote instruction.

Both Berger’s press release and the bill cite the ABC Science Collaborative and CDC recommendations on COVID protocols would likely be included in any action taken. Most recently, the CDC has said cited studies showing low to no transmission in schools and that they can and should operate using current mitigation options like masks and social distancing.

Earlier this month, a study conducted by Duke University, the ABC Science Collaborative and several other notable organizations showed no child to adult transmission and “within-school infections were extremely rare.” The study looked at 11 North Carolina school districts and nearly 100,000 students and staff that were open for nine weeks of in-person instruction.

Over the summer, Cooper missed his self-imposed deadline of July 1 to make an announcement on fall school reopenings stating his decision would be coming “soon” but was likely a “couple weeks away.” Media outlets pressed Cooper why he was ignoring his own deadline, which the governor dodged, answering only that he needed to get “a buy-in across the board” before issuing a decision.

When Cooper finally did announce a reopening plan in mid-July, returning to school full-time was not an option. The governor announced the use of Plan B, a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction but he also said districts could choose Plan C, full remote instruction only. The result of that indecisiveness was the largest districts chose to start the 2020-21 school year completely virtual, impacting most of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students.

It would not be until the second half of September that Cooper would permit full-time, in-person instruction and that access would be limited to only elementary schools. Middle and high schoolers were forced to remain in Plan B or Plan C depending on their district status.

According to a Jan. 28 Civitas Institute Poll, 46% of likely registered voters give Gov. Cooper a “thumbs-down” on school reopening with only 39% giving him a “thumbs-up.” Disapproval ratings were strongest among Hispanic respondents with 59% expressing their concern over the governor’s handling of school closures.

Voters were also not happy with their local school district actions with 45% either strongly or somewhat disapproving and only 34% approving of their district’s actions. The poll also revealed that almost seven in 10 respondents believe student learning has been negatively impacted by instructional changes made in response to the pandemic.

This is an ongoing story and will be updated following the governor’s remarks at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

About A.P. Dillon 539 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_