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Rules For Reopening NC Schools Pose Lots Of Questions, Challenges

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
School meals have been done by drive-through since mid-March; officials hope to return to in-person classes in August.

How long will it take to do health screenings on every student entering school? Can families opt their kids out of in-person classes? How do you persuade swarms of children and adolescents to keep a safe distance apart?

Those are among the lingering questions after Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials released a 26-page road map for reopening schools Aug. 17.

It's a mix of mandates and suggestions, with schools required to prepare for three scenarios: returning in person with some changes in health procedures, returning in person with more serious restrictions, and opening with remote learning if the coronavirus pandemic makes face-to-face contact dangerous.

None of the options will look familiar, Cooper said Monday.

"Students and staff will be screened for illness before they enter the school," Cooper said. "Children will be asked to stay distant from classmates. They won’t be sharing pencils and textbooks, and there will be a lot of cleaning."

The state Board of Education will hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Thursdayto flesh out the practical aspects of the health guidance. And Cooper plans to announce on July 1 which path he expects schools to take, based on trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Until then, here's some of what we know and don't know -- and what people are worrying about.

Getting To Class

Daily temperature screenings are required for everyone using school transportation and entering schools, even under the least restrictive option. The plan recommends that each bus have at least one adult assistant to help with screening.

Six-foot spacing between bus riders is recommended in the least restrictive option and required in the more-restrictive one.

It's not clear how a district like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which runs more than 1,000 buses to 175 schools, could create that kind of space on buses. 

Gabe Schuhl, the CMS board's student adviser, will be a senior at Ardrey Kell High, which has more than 3,000 students. School already starts at 7:15 a.m., and he suspects students would have to arrive even earlier to get everyone through a health screening.

Keeping A Safe Distance

Schuhl also wonders how large, crowded schools can space people safely in halls and cafeterias.

"It seems almost impossible to enforce 6 feet apart when you’ve got more than 3,000 students switching classes through some pretty crowded hallways," he says. "When I’m changing classes at Ardrey Kell, I don’t think there’s a moment when I’m 6 feet apart from a single person."

Amanda Thompson, a math facilitator at Walter G. Byers K-8 School, wonders the same about young children, no matter the setting.

"Looking at kindergarteners and first-graders, it’s hard for them a.) to keep their hands off each other, and b.) to be 6 feet distancing, because in kindergarten is when you really learn how to be sociable," she said. "You really learn how to get along with other kids, you know."

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Students, faculty and community members gathered at Ardrey Kell High to paint over racist graffiti on the school rock.

Recent events, including graduation events, massive street protests and a rock painting rally at Ardrey Kell on Monday, have seen large crowds in close quarters, with and without masks.

Under Cooper's plan, cloth face coverings are "strongly recommended but not required."

Eric Davis of Charlotte, who chairs the state Board of Education, paused when asked if anyone can really expect students to consistently keep their distance.

"It's going to be very hard," he said Tuesday. "Enforcement, I think, is overrated. That's why it requires an individual commitment to protect each other so that we can all benefit from going back to school."

Safety And Sanitation

The rules mandate lots of hand-sanitizing stations and hand-washing opportunities. Schools must deny entrance to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms. If students develop symptoms after arrival, they must be isolated and sent home.

The state plan requires schools to offer alternatives for students and employees who are at high risk from the coronavirus, including people with heart disease, compromised immune systems or moderate to severe asthma.

Shannon Stein, superintendent of Lake Norman Charter School, said parents at a Tuesday morning coffee had concerns.

"One of the questions we received was, 'What if I just don't feel comfortable sending my student to school? What does that mean in regards to what options I will have as a parent? ' "

Tracking Attendance

The state sets rules for tracking attendance and enrollment -- and student tallies have big consequences for schools. The number of students affects teacher positions allotted to school districts and per-pupil funding for charter schools.

Right now it's not clear whether families can opt out of in-person attendance -- or whether districts can do the kind of creative blend of remote and physical teaching that may be required to free up space in classes and corridors.

Elyse Dashew, who chairs the CMS school board, says the General Assembly would need to revise rules to grant that kind of flexibility.

The cost of all the required changes remains unclear. Davis, the state board chair, says he expects districts and charter schools to help figure out what's needed as they craft their plans.

Worst-Case Scenario

The General Assembly mandated that schools convene in person on Aug. 17. But Cooper could issue an executive order to keep them closed, with students and teachers connecting via technology, if COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths indicate it's unsafe to physically reopen.

On Tuesday the state reported 774 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest number since the pandemic reached North Carolina.

Every district and charter school is already preparing a remote learning plan, which is due to the state by July 20. 

There's widespread agreement that conducting classes through Zoom meetings, phone calls, digital lessons and paper packets sent home is a poor substitute for real classrooms. But the stakes are high. Even though children and teens are at less risk than older people, North Carolina recently logged its first child fatality, a 8-year-old Durham girl.

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Education Education
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.