GREENSBORO — Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper called on school districts across the state to fully reopen for in-person learning.
"We've learned much more about this virus and now it is time to get our children back into the classroom," he said.
But he declined to compel districts to make that option available.
Like many other school districts, Guilford County's Board of Education has hesitated to send all of its students back during the pandemic, and plans to continue reopening are on hold while board members await more information about COVID-19 vaccination plans.
Cooper's announcement was welcomed by some board members, but it's still not clear what the board will do when they meet next on Feb. 9.
“We have received extensive data to confirm that the health risks of in-person attendance are thankfully much lower than we initially feared," said Catherine Truitt, the state's superintendent.
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Mandy Cohen, North Carolina's Secretary of Health, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently cited North Carolina as an example of how school reopening can be done safely even in times of heavy community spread.
She said that a study from North Carolina's ABC Science Collaborative, a group of COVID-19 experts from Duke University, found that if someone at a school had the coronavirus, it was unlikely they were infected at the school — or had infected anyone else there.
Cohen said in the schools that the collaborative studied, there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission. She said that's consistent with other studies around the world that suggest children are less likely than adults to transmit the virus.
On Tuesday, Cooper stopped short of requiring schools to reopen and said he had concerns about a bill recently introduced in the state legislature that, if it became law, would require districts to go back to in-person learning. He worries that Senate Bill 37 would compromise safety guidelines and thinks school districts need flexibility to make their own decisions.
“Let’s give these local boards a chance," Cooper said. "They’ve had to make some very tough decisions on the ground. I think we agree our decisions are best made about education at a local level.”
That stance puts him at odds with both Republican legislative leaders pushing the bill and the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest group that lobbies on behalf of teachers.
The NCAE says returning to school isn't safe without widespread vaccination of educators. The organization also wants to see more money go toward other COVID-19 safety needs in schools.
Todd Warren, the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said he's not calling for teachers to skip ahead of elderly people in line for shots, but he thinks Cooper should be doing more to press the Biden administration — which is also calling for students to return — for more vaccines.
Warren said that ideally staff would have two doses of the vaccine before the return of students, but he pointed out that many district teachers already are working in classrooms without that protection.
Guilford County Schools is offering the option of daily in-person instruction for elementary students and some older students with special needs.
Guilford's school board voted at its last meeting to postpone for at least three weeks the return of middle and high school students, which had been planned for late January.
Winston McGregor, the board's vice chairwoman, made the motion at the Jan. 12 meeting.
Asked for her reaction to Cooper's announcement Tuesday, McGregor said there's still a lot the board has to weigh before making a decision.
"I and my colleagues will continue to do that as we work to accelerate learning for students and protect staff," McGregor said in an email.
On the other hand, fellow board member Anita Sharpe was jubilant.
"I am ready for us to go back to school," she said.
Sharpe said the governor's urging doesn't guarantee how school board members will vote, but thinks his opinion does carry weight across the state.
Pat Tillman, another board member, also said he's gratified that the governor and state superintendent are advocating for students to return.
"I would say that they’ve finally come around," he said.
Tillman made a substitute motion at the last school board meeting that would have kept the middle school return on track but delayed the high school return until Feb. 2.
Cooper required districts to adopt remote learning last March as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country.
For this school year, he gave districts the choice of continuing with remote learning or returning students to classes with social distancing and other safety protocols in place.
In September, Cooper encouraged districts to reopen K-5 classes for in-person instruction.
He did not extend that recommendation to middle and high schools until Tuesday.
At least 90 of 150 school districts across the state are providing in-person classes to at least some of their students, he said.