In delaying a long-awaited July 1 announcement on plans for how schools could re-open on August 17, Governor Cooper shocked 115 local school districts and the parents of 1.5 million North Carolina public school children.
On July 1 he announced:
We are not issuing a statewide directive today on how schools should be open in the fall. But we will soon. We want to get our students back in the classroom, and we want to make sure we get this right. My number one priority is opening classroom doors. So we encourage our public schools to continue that planning, with a special focus on how teachers, staff, and students can best be protected – especially those who are high-risk.”
The science concerning coronavirus and schoolchildren has changed very little in recent months, but perhaps Cooper and Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen were persuaded by a report released earlier this week from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stating, “All policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school.”
Here is the good news for parents hoping schools will welcome students back to the classroom in the fall. Even those of us at Civitas, who have been critical of the Governor’s slow re-opening plans, and lack of transparency would have a hard time watching Governor Cooper’s press conference and concluding he is not serious about re-opening schools to in-person instruction in some way this fall.
At the press conference, Secretary Cohen stated, international research suggests schools have not been attributed to the spread of COVID-19, and that children are less likely to spread the virus. She and Governor Cooper would have a tremendously hard time walking back from that statement.
But again, this is not new news but indicates the first time Cohen or Cooper has acknowledged such facts. We also note with North Carolina’s current high rate of infection Governor Cooper did not say the infection rate needs to decline to open schools, rather he used the word “stabilize,” meaning we could remain at the current high rate of infection and still re-open schools to in-person instruction.
However, some of this is political grandstanding for Gov. Cooper. The delay has already made it clear schools will not be opening in any real sense for vast amounts of public-school children. On Thursday, July 2, Wake County Public Schools adopted a recommendation the system adopt a plan “B” system, Wake school administrators recommend splitting the 162,000 students into three groups. They’d rotate for one week of in-person instruction followed by two weeks of remote instruction from home. On any given school day 108,000 of Wake County’s public-school children would be at home. While not the same, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would have a similar 1/3rd rotation that on any given school day would have just 50,000 of the system’s 150,000 school kids at a school building. Is having 208,000 of 312,000 public school students from the state’s two largest counties at home every day really having schools “open?” Add in that the state’s 3rd largest system, Guilford, with 72,000 students, does not see it possible to open under plan “B” and would have to open as remote only, then 280,000 of 384,000 of the public school students in the state’s three most populous counties are not in school on any given school day if ever.
Also, this being an election year, Cooper may be trying to thread a needle politically, trying to balance:
- The interests of parents
- The urban-rural divide (the more democratic urban areas show more reservations about children returning to school compared to the more republican rural areas)
- The interests of teachers and school staff who are expressing concern about returning to the classroom. How will the dwindling but still influential NCAE respond?
- The needs and requirements for local school districts for his various plans
On that last note, the Cooper Administration was surprised and unprepared for the negative reaction their re-opening guidelines received from local school districts. To start preparing for a new school year, state officials three weeks ago issued a 26-page tool kit to schools with recommendations for social distancing and sanitization.
Schools were instructed to develop three plans for the start of the fall semester: minimal social distancing, extreme social distancing, or remote learning only. Cooper will decide which plan schools can use, although schools can choose to use a more restrictive option.
Under Plan B, schools would operate at no more than 50% capacity. Options being considered include having students rotate in and out on a weekly or a daily basis or having some students go to class daily while others would only receive instruction online.
Under Plan C, schools would continue with remote instruction until conditions improve to allow students back on campus.
The plan “B” option which most schools were attempting to prepare for has become an unworkable nightmare. Considering the many requirements, it’s difficult to see how districts could open at all.
The logistics, effort, and money it will take to reopen schools in Forsyth County under Plan “B” recently left some members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education speechless. “It’s overwhelming,” said school board member Marilyn Parker, as the district is facing a logistical nightmare with transportation.
Based on guidelines from the state, each bus must operate at 25% capacity, which means about 12 students per bus. As a result, it will take a minimum of five hours for all bus riders to get to their school, according to Darrell Walker, the assistant superintendent of operations.
Dr. Sharon Contreras, the Superintendent of Guilford County Schools, when asked about opening schools under a Plan B scenario said it “seemed impractical” at this moment. Dr. Contreras said the district’s initial cost estimate to re-open under a Plan B comes to $98 million.
Where does the NCAE stand?
The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE has curiously remained relatively quiet regarding back-to-school decisions. They haven’t taken a public stance on how schools should proceed, which strikes many as odd considering how directly their members are affected.
Cooper followed the NCAE off a cliff last year, that punished rank and file teachers by vetoing 3.9% teacher raises and refusing an offer of 4.9% raises and $1,000 bonus. Civitas called the move for even higher raises a big gamble for Cooper in December. That roll of the dice came up snake eyes for 94,000 public school teachers, only a fraction who are represented by the NCAE. Because of virus-related budget shortfalls, it’s unlikely teachers will regain those losses for several years.
They only have Cooper to blame, but their focus recently has been on attacking Republicans for offering them a bonus during a financial crisis.
Continuing with their loyalty to Cooper, the NCAE came out in favor of Cooper’s decision to postpone releasing reopening guidelines.
“COVID information is changing on a daily basis, and the health and safety of all of our state’s educators, students, and their families is at stake,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. “It is far more important to get this decision right than to get it done quickly.”
Clearly the teacher’s union is not happy with the direction Cooper was headed and wanted to put the brakes on it while trying to avoid publicly criticizing their political ally.
They got Cooper to delay. But the questions remain: What is their stance on re-opening of schools, and how beholden is Cooper to their preference?
What Cooper will decide, and when, remains a question. Some speculate that Cooper’s recent and more strict statewide mask mandate may be used as a reason to relax some of the extreme social distancing requirements in school buildings and school buses under a partial re-opening plan B model. Others think he may try to delay school until September in the hopes that the virus spread has slowed, utilizing virtual learning in the meantime.
As Civitas as documented for months, Governor Roy Cooper and Health Secretary Mandy Cohen do not present data in a transparent way, that allow others to challenge or affirm their conclusions. With that, it is difficult for public policy organizations, other lawmakers, and most importantly, parents, to anticipate what the fall will bring.
Meanwhile, parents and teachers are growing more impatient with the Governor’s indecisiveness.