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Cooper: When N.C. students return to school, it will 'look a lot different'

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students will return to school in August, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday, but it will be in a world where many children only attend classes every other day or every other week.

Cooper announced that K-12 public schools will reopen under a “moderate social distancing” plan that limits how many people can be on campus, forcing many students to get a mix of in-person and remote instruction. The reopening plan requires daily temperature checks, maintaining 6 feet of social distancing and face coverings to be worn by all school employees and students.

He warned that the state may switch to requiring all schools to implement online-only instruction if COVID-19 cases continue to spike and they can’t safely reopen under the new health protocols.

“We know that school will look a lot different this year,” Cooper said at a news briefing Tuesday. “They have to in order to be safe and effective. The public health experts and the school leaders developed these safety rules to protect our students and teachers and their families.”

Most students are scheduled to return to classrooms on Aug. 17 — five months after Cooper ordered schools closed to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory disease. Students finished out the remainder of the year learning from home, which drew complaints from many families about the quality of their education.

Cooper said school districts can reopen with remote-only instruction if they determine that it’s best for students, parents and teachers.

That’s where Guilford County Schools appears to be headed.

During a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Superintendent Sharon Contreras was adamant that students shouldn’t return to classrooms while there is still a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

Risks of not reopening

Cooper has said he would make his decision based on data and science. New statewide figures released Tuesday show new records set for COVID-19 hospitalizations and single-day death totals.

But Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s secretary of health, said Tuesday that the available scientific evidence indicates that children are less likely to be infected with the respiratory disease and are less likely to spread it to others.

“Schools are a lower transmission setting and have not seemed to play a major role in the spread of COVID-19,” Cohen said. “We weighed these factors against the conclusive evidence that school is critical to a child’s education, health, emotional and social well-being, and that missing school is actually harmful to children.”

Guidance given by the American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

But the group also says “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.”

Schools try to make Plan B work

Cooper had previously directed schools to develop three reopening plans. Plan A has “minimal distancing” where everyone is allowed back in school. Plan C is remote-only instruction.

Cooper picked Plan B, which has “moderate social distancing.” He said schools can choose Plan C — the most extreme measure — but not Plan A.

Some districts, like Wake County, want to split students into a rotation of in-person classes followed by remote instruction.

Districts like Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg that expect to use rotating schedules are working with community groups to find childcare options. Wake plans to offer childcare at schools to help families of school employees.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools will have students go to school two days a week. But middle school and high school students will start online only before returning to school buildings later in the fall semester.

Under a plan proposed by Contreras on Tuesday, the first few weeks of school would consist of remote instruction. After that, some grade levels could return to the classroom pending the approval of county health officials.

Face coverings required

Cooper said the state will provide all schools with at least five reusable cloth face coverings per student.

Face coverings are meant to reduce the possibility of the wearer spreading the illness to others.

Initially, state health officials were only recommending the wearing of face coverings in schools. They later changed the guidelines to require it for school employees and older students while leaving it recommended for elementary students.

But the new guidelines will require all students to wear face coverings.

“The studies have shown overwhelmingly that face coverings reduce disease transmission,” Cooper said.

Cohen said that if a student tests positive that they will do contact tracing to notify the people who were most in contact with the child. She said that it would not automatically lead to a school being closed.

Skepticism about returning

It’s a potential no-win situation for Cooper and school districts on how to reopen.

The North Carolina Association of Educators is urging people to sign a “NC Public School Workers Bill of Rights” that says school employees must have a say in reopening and state lawmakers must provide more money for schools.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, said school districts should have gotten more flexibility to set their own reopening plans.

President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from states that don’t reopen schools for in-person instruction.

At the state level, Republican legislative leaders Sen. Phil Berger of Eden and House Speaker Tim Moore have said they support the president’s call for a return to full, in-person instruction.

Watch now: Here's what social distancing in the classroom might look like in Guilford County Schools

GREENSBORO Nothing fuzzy or fluffy. Spaced-out student desks. Cafeterias turned into classrooms.

That is a glimpse of what Guilford County Schools administrators believe socially distanced education could look like in the school system’s classroom this year.

Top school-system officials held a series of media opportunities at Sternberger Elementary School in Greensboro on Tuesday morning to show how they are planning for the possibility of returning to school under “moderate” social distancing requirements.

Under a moderate social distancing scenario, requirements from the state are expected to include keeping students, staff members and others in the buildings 6 feet apart.

Sternberger, the officials said, is one of the school system’s older schools, which often have smaller classrooms than the newer buildings. Each classroom is different, and such features as built-in shelving make it harder to figure out from a floor plan what can fit.

School officials set up a couple of classrooms at Sternberger based on 6-foot spacing.

In the third-grade classroom they showed reporters Tuesday, school administrators were able to fit about 16 desks, each about 6 feet apart from “nose to nose,” as Angie Henry, the school system’s chief financial and operations officer put it. Most third grade classes have around 20 or 21 students, the later being the maximum per teacher K-3 class size, Henry said. So, without more teachers, there’s an obvious challenge for the school system to make this work.

Meanwhile, to fit those 16 socially distanced desks, plus a space for the teacher to instruct from the front of the class, they had to remove most of the furniture in the classroom. Just two classrooms’ worth of excess furniture made for a sizeable pile in the hallway outside.

Henry and Whitney Oakley, the school system’s chief financial officer, said finding storage space for all that furniture is another major challenge. Even if there were space in the classroom for the furniture, those additional “touch points” would need to be disinfected. State rules require schools to remove such items as beanbag chairs and pillows, they said. Typically, these would provide a cozy spot for students to read, but administrators said they cannot easily be disinfected and so no longer have a place in the classroom.

Extra space was left around the classroom’s air-conditioning unit, to avoid concentrations of air flowing over students’ desks, Henry said. So what looks on paper like a 770-square-foot classroom really has about 568 square feet available for desks, she said.

Sternberger’s combined gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium was transformed into a classroom. Because students would eat in their classrooms, rather than cafeterias, for social distancing, it’s likely the school system would use such spaces as classrooms, Oakley and Henry said.

In an elementary school, they said, school officials would likely partition a space into multiple separate classrooms. Without partitions, the space held about 52 desks. With partitions to split it up and to allow for access to the kitchen, they predicted it could house two classrooms of about 20 students, so 40 desks total.

In addition to reporters, the school system has been inviting school board members and some principals to visit the classrooms to get a sense of how this could work and where the difficulties lie.

Oakley said their hope is that groups of principals who come to Sternberger will go back to their schools and set up their own spaces there, for teachers, staff members and other principals to check out.

Oakley said school administrators don’t anticipate having traditional open houses this school year, given the threat of COVID-19, but they are looking at the possibility at some point of allowing parents to make an appointments to check out classroom spaces and desk arrangements to get a better sense of it all.

“It really does help to see it and touch it and look at it,” she said.

'Still troubling': Cooper extends Phase Two of coronavirus reopening plan

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina will stay in Phase Two of reopening for at least three more weeks.

Plans had called for Phase Two possibly ending Friday, but it will stay in effect at least until Aug. 7, Cooper said during a Tuesday news conference.

“Our virus trends are not spiking like some other states,” Cooper said Tuesday. “We have hospital capacity and our percent positive is still high, but it’s steady. However, our numbers are still troubling, and they could jump higher in the blink of an eye.”

In late June, Cooper extended Phase Two of the reopening plan to July 17 at the earliest.

Cooper’s announcement came the same day he announced how the state’s public schools will reopen when most students are expected back Aug. 17. They will operate with a hybrid of in-person and online learning with an option for all online instruction.

The state monitors several benchmarks, including hospitalizations, positive cases and testing, to determine when North Carolina can lift restrictions that have been in place for months.

Despite efforts to control the spread, the pace of infections has been increasing since May. New coronavirus cases increased 31.8% in the first 14 days in July compared to the last 14 days in June.

North Carolina hospitals consistently report records of COVID-19 patients. The state hit a new record Tuesday, with at least 1,109 people with COVID-19 in hospitals, The News & Observer reported. The state hit a daily record of new coronavirus cases Saturday.

More than 440 of the state’s 1,552 COVID-19 deaths have come in the past four weeks. North Carolina added 42 people to the death toll on Tuesday.

Monday, DHHS reported 67,124 patients presumed to be recovered, according to a weekly report.

Cooper responds to data

On June 26, Cooper mandated masks in public and also delayed a step in the planned gradual relaxation of limits on business and leisure activities.

He also has vetoed bills that would have allowed bars, gyms, bowling alleys and amusement parks to reopen. Republican legislators have criticized the reopening plan as too slow and not taking enough account of safety measures businesses are willing to implement.

Phase Two allows salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors to open at 50% capacity. Restaurants, which had previously been limited to takeout and delivery, are allowed to open their dining rooms at 50% capacity. Mass gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.

Cooper said he is troubled by businesses in the state that remain unable to open under Phase Two and wants to get them operating as soon as possible.

But he noted a steady uptick in the number of cases, hospitalizations and emergency room patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

“Those numbers continue to be concerning, and we don’t want to start easing these restrictions with those numbers so high,” he said.

Growth in cases among young people

Despite the restrictions, data shows coronavirus cases among people ages 18 to 49 have dramatically increased and now have the most cases in North Carolina.

“When you’re younger, you feel more invincible,” N.C. health secretary Mandy Cohen said at a news conference last month. “When we see more spread in our younger folks, who may not get quite as sick, they are still risks to those that would get more sick.”

Orange County is now limiting alcohol and dining-room sales after 10 p.m. at restaurants, private clubs and other food-service establishments.

Charlotte is considering a similar requirement with Mecklenburg County experiencing the most cases across the state.

Cooper said these kinds of limits are a good idea for some communities, especially in college towns where students are returning for the fall semester.

“We want local governments to make those decisions,” he said, but they are also among the actions the state could take.

An interesting story in today's newspaper

Out of season: Are you ready for some (spring) football? Colleges may be forced to go that route. Page C1

COVID-19 update: Tuesday's numbers

Number of N.C. cases: 89,484 as of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, up 1,956 since Monday. Eleven percent of tests Monday were positive.

In Guilford County: According to state health officials, Guilford County has had 3,760 cases of COVID-19 and 128 related deaths as of Tuesday’s report, up 78 cases and five deaths since Monday. Since early March, the county health department said, 391 Guilford County residents have been hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 and 1,945 people have recovered.

N.C. deaths: 1,552 statewide as of Tuesday, a one-day increase of 42 deaths, according to state health officials.

N.C. hospitalizations: 1,109 people are hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 with 91% of hospitals reporting. That’s 69 more patients than Monday’s report and the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations reported to date. 78% of ICU beds and 73% of inpatient beds are in use among reporting hospitals. The data does not identify how many beds are being used by patients with COVID-19. Locally, Cone Health is treating 74 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, a spokesman said Tuesday.