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Gov. Cooper says school reopening bill still needs some work before he approves it

Gov. Cooper says school reopening bill still needs some work before he approves it

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Adrian Mack raises his hand to share his answer during class Feb. 4 at Peck Elementary School in Greensboro. Most school systems, including Guilford County Schools, already have offered some in-person learning.

RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday he wants to have more discussions with legislative leaders before deciding how to act on a bill that would require school districts to give students the option of in-person learning.

Cooper said bills should require schools to comply with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' guidelines for returning to in-person learning, which include social distancing for middle and high schools. He also wants local school districts to be able to respond to emergencies without being "hampered" by legislation.

"The bill that legislators just passed fails on both of these fronts," Cooper said. "It is critical for teachers and students that we get this right."

The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 37 this week, requiring school systems to offer Plan A to special needs students and either Plan A or Plan B for all students. There is a mask requirement at all schools. Plan B includes 6 feet of social distancing, while Plan A does not.

The current state guidance calls for Plan A for K-5 and Plan B or C for 6-12. SB 37 allows both plans for K-12. Both Cooper's plan and the bill include offering an online-only option for students statewide.

Most school systems already have offered in-person learning, though some had paused it after winter break. Cooper has urged school systems that had been closed to in-person classes to resume in-person instruction, though he stopped short of mandating it. Several more school districts have chosen to reopen in recent weeks.

Cooper said Thursday he could sign different legislation "or let this run its course."

The governor said by mid-March, 95 of the state's 115 local school districts would have some in-person instruction.

Teachers and other school staff are next in line for vaccines, starting Feb. 24. They will be the first group of front-line essential workers eligible in the next phase of vaccinations, with others in that category set to become eligible on March 10.

"What the department is going to do is to work with the providers and see how the process of working with educators goes and to learn some things about that before any decisions are made about the front-line essential workers March 10," Cooper said.

North Carolina will also continue vaccinating those in earlier groups as the front-line workers become eligible, including anyone who is at least 65 years old and health care workers.

Cooper said he will announce next steps to the state's executive order next week. The modified stay-at-home order is set to expire Feb. 28, and includes a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and restrictions on gathering size and business capacities. There is also a statewide mask mandate.

"All of those restrictions that are in place now — the gathering limits, others — all of these are on the table to be considered," Cooper said.

That includes considering adjustments to capacity limits at high school sporting events. Senate Republicans filed a bill Thursday that would raise the capacity limit on outdoor high school sport venues.

School sports are now allowed with several restrictions, including masks. About 40,000 people have signed an online petition to allow more than 100 spectators at outdoor high school sporting events.

Cooper said health experts are looking at data, and that he is feeling more positive about the state's improving coronavirus cases and vaccinations underway.

"Hopefully we will see some changes in that arena when we make the announcement on the new executive order next week," he said.

No matter what, Cooper said, North Carolina residents should be prepared to continue wearing masks, staying physically distant and avoiding large groups.

"We know that there will be continued restrictions in place in order to protect the people, but we'll be announcing what changes are coming next week," Cooper said.

Vaccine delays

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines this week have been delayed due to winter weather, likely causing the postponement of vaccination appointments.

No doses of the Moderna vaccine have been shipped, according to DHHS, a category that includes 99,500 first doses. Kody Kinsley, a DHHS deputy secretary, said Thursday that about half of the state's expected doses of the Pfizer vaccine have arrived or are expected to come soon.

The state does not have enough doses on-hand to cover the delayed supply, according to a DHHS release. Vaccine providers should base their appointment schedule on the amount of vaccine they already have, according to the state health department.

Kinsley said the delay is now about two-and-a-half days.

"We're watching this very carefully and working with our providers," Kinsley said. "Our guidance right now to providers is to get folks in as soon as they can once they have noticed that the shipments are coming."

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