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Cooper Says He Needs 'A Couple Of Weeks' More For NC School Reopening Plan

N.C. Department of Public Safety

Gov. Roy Cooper pushed back his self-imposed July 1 deadline for a statewide school reopening plan, saying Wednesday he needs more time to "get it right."

He and state Health Director Mandy Cohen said there was no one event that triggered the delay, but they said new studies had landed recently. In particular, Cohen referred to an American Academy of Pediatrics publication that said students are at more risk from missing out on school than they are from the coronavirus.

Cooper said his decision will come "within the next couple of weeks."

"We’ve learned a lot more in the last few weeks with studies that have come about. We’re working to get more buy-in from teachers and people who are on the ground," Cooper said.

Cooper and Cohen agreed they want an in-person opening, but Wednesday also brought the highest number of newly diagnosed coronavirus cases in North Carolina so far. They called on residents to stay out of large crowds and wear masks to slow the spread of the virus.

"With today being our highest day of cases yet, I cannot stress how important this is," Cohen said. "Wear a face covering because you want to protect your loved ones and your neighbors. Wear a face covering because you want to reignite the economy and support businesses. Wear a face covering so our children can be back at school where they can grow, learn and thrive."

Cooper and other state officials have instructed all public schools to prepare forthree reopening options. They say they're trying to avoid the one that would keep buildings closed and rely on remote instruction, similar to what happened when schools closed in mid-March.

One in-person path would allow schools to open at full capacity, with additional sanitation and screening measures and adjustments to cafeterias, halls and other common areas to avoid crowds.

The other would limit schools and buses to 50% capacity to allow greater distancing. That would likely require alternative scheduling, with some students at school while others learn at home.

Local school boards and charter schools had expected to learn Wednesday which path Cooper would choose. They'd have the option of choosing a more restrictive path based on local conditions, but not a less restrictive one. 

Cohen noted that the AAP report emphasized that children are at low risk of catching COVID-19 and spreading the virus that causes it. But she said plans also have to account for keeping teachers and other employees safe.

"We have to protect our teachers and our students as we think about in-person instruction," Cohen said. "It is possible. It is hard work. It starts with (protective equipment). It starts with plans for high-risk teachers and students."

The state's emergency response team sent a two-month supply of thermometers, face shields, gowns and surgical masks to all public schools this week.

Charlotte-area school officials had been anxiously awaiting Wednesday's announcement so they could move forward with whichever path Cooper chose. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board called a special meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday, hoping to vote on a reopening plan. Instead, the board will hold a public discussion of all three paths.

The Aug. 17 opening day mandated by the General Assembly is less that six weeks away, but Cooper said he believes pushing back his announcement will still leave time to prepare.

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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.