RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper says his decision this week to open North Carolina schools with a mix of in-person and online classes is an attempt to give individual communities across the state some basic guidelines, but also some flexibility.
"It's a measured, balanced approach that will allow children to attend but provide important safety protocols, like fewer children in the classroom, social distancing, face coverings, cleanings and more," Cooper said.
But it's an election year, and the fall semester will be well underway by the time voters go to the polls in November. As with many other parts of the state's coronavirus response, the debate over schools is yet another factor that could determine which way North Carolina — a key swing state in national races for president and control of the U.S. Senate — will vote in the fall.
Cooper's school decision was quickly criticized by Republicans, including the state's top lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who's running for governor against Cooper this year.
"There are a thousand different pieces and parts to this that don't have a plan to it," Forest said Wednesday on a conservative talk radio show hosted by KC O'Dea. "You're just saying, 'Here is the strategy and here is the tool, go figure it out yourself.' That's not a plan."
When asked by The News & Observer what Forest's plan would be if he were in charge, Forest campaign spokesman Andrew Dunn said to "stay tuned" for details in the future.
Cooper campaign spokeswoman Liz Doherty criticized Forest, who is a member of the State Board of Education in his role as lieutenant governor, for not attending recent meetings. Doherty said Forest has skipped half of the board's meetings since March, when coronavirus began intensifying, including debates and votes on issues like remote learning plans.
Will school plans affect 2020 votes?
The 2016 election was an odd year in North Carolina, when Cooper won the governor's race as a Democrat even as Republican Donald Trump won the presidential race. Both parties see an opportunity in 2020 to win where they lost in 2016.
And as coronavirus issues ranging from mask-wearing to reopening plans become increasingly politicized, some people's votes might just hinge on how well the fall semester goes for public schools.
"It's going to be a factor in how people look toward the November elections," said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state's biggest teacher lobbying group.
There are 10.5 million North Carolinians, and 1.5 million of them are children enrolled in public schools. Behind them are lots of parents and grandparents, not to mention the 110,000 public school teachers in the state, plus thousands more who work in schools outside the classroom.
Walker Kelly said it's inevitable that different people are going to be upset with different parts of the plan. But in general, she said, parents and educators are going to be most concerned with which politicians they see sticking up for them.
"People are watching and monitoring and being very mindful of all the decisions our elected officials are making," she said. "They know who has our best interests at heart."
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said Cooper's plan allows individual parents to ask for their child's classes to be fully online. But it does not do the opposite and let parents ask to have no online classes.
He thinks that should change.
"Students whose parents do not have the time or resources to supplement 'virtual' schooling will fall even further behind simply because of the condition of their birth," Berger said in a news release. "That's an unspeakable travesty. And parents who do not have the privilege of working from home can't take off every other day from work. What are they supposed to do?"
A new nationwide poll found that by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans think it's unsafe to send K-12 students back to school in person this fall. That public opinion poll from Quinnipiac University was released Wednesday afternoon.
And while Cooper did give districts the option to go fully online, he also said there are many reasons to send kids to school in person beyond just what's in the lesson plan.
"They support children's social, emotional and physical development, and they're reliable sources of good meals," Cooper said.
As for fully-online schooling, Berger spokeswoman Lauren Horsch said that actually might be in violation of a new state law, passed earlier this year, that requires schools to meet in person for at least the first week this fall.
"Regardless of whether you support or oppose the policy, this dangerous move sets a precedent for a post-legal world in which political control of the executive branch supersedes the Constitutionally-designated authority of the legislature to pass laws," she said in an email.
A June poll from the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling firm found that 52% of North Carolinians approved of Cooper's handling of coronavirus, compared to 35% who don't.
The right-leaning Civitas Institute also polled a similar question last month, and found that 51% thought Cooper's reopening strategy had been about right, 26% thought things were reopening too slowly and 19% thought things were reopening too quickly.
The legislature's role
N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, questioned what will happen to families who can't handle the increased time demands of online school at home.
Cooper's plan "exacerbates the administration's economic and public health failures while adding even more uncertainty for struggling families in North Carolina," Moore said in a written statement Tuesday.
Moore's counterpart across the aisle, top Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, said there has been some "thoughtful criticism" of the governor's plan. But when conservative politicians push to fully reopen businesses and also not require people to wear masks, Jackson said, they lose credibility to question the governor's plans.
"Republican leaders want to do the opposite of every public health recommendation, and then in that dangerous environment, send all of our teachers and students to crowded classrooms," he said.
Jackson said he agrees that there needs to more discussion on some topics, especially how to get food to kids whose families rely on schools to feed them. He said the next step should be for local school districts to come up with plans, then ask the General Assembly for the funding they'll need.
The legislature will likely not be in session in August when school starts. But lawmakers do plan to return in early September, at least briefly.
Walker Kelly of NCAE said that even before coronavirus highlighted it, North Carolina doesn't have enough school nurses and school psychologists. She said she hopes the legislature agrees quickly and with broad support to address that and other funding needs for more sanitation and public health equipment at schools.
"We shouldn't have to fight for increased funding to keep people safe," she said. "It should not be a political fight to protect people's lives."