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FAQ City: Your Questions About Schools And Coronavirus Answered

Ann Doss Helms


Schools in Charlotte and across North Carolina have been closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus. Online classes became the new norm. Many in-person graduations, sporting events and proms were canceled. Now, state health officials say North Carolina’s coronavirus trends are moving in the wrong direction. As fall draws closer, what’s next for schools? Will buildings reopen?

In this FAQ City episode, WFAE reporters Claire Donnelly and Ann Doss Helms tackle questions sent in from you, our listeners, about North Carolina's reopening.

Listen to the audio segment above or read on for answers.

When will Gov. Roy Cooper announce a school reopening plan?

According to what the governor said on Thursday, an announcement is coming in the coming week.


What might reopening look like? Will schools reopen for in-person classes?


Gov. Roy Cooper is looking at three different paths for reopening. The first would require schools across the state to start the year in remote mode, like what we saw from mid-March to June.


Another would allow schools to reopen in person at full capacity, with some safety measures in place. That would be the most popular option if the virus went away or went back to safe levels.


Cooper pushed back his own July 1 deadline in hopes of getting better coronavirus trends, but state officials said they’re still looking bad.


The third option is a middle path, where schools and buses operate at 50% capacity. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that would mean students are divided into three groups, with each group attending in person one week, then going home to learn remotely for two. CMS leaders are focusing on that strategy. But it would be extraordinarily complicated to execute and it’s not clear that the state law allows that for the first week of school.


The state’s General Assembly mandated an Aug. 17 opening date for all public schools. Lawmakers also mandated that the first five days cannot be conducted remotely. The House passed a bill that would remove that restriction, but it’s in a Senate committee and Senate Leader Phil Berger hasn’t agreed to bring it to the floor.


Could schools reopen on a county-by-county basis? (Submitted by Patricia)


State officials have said districts and charter schools can choose a more restrictive option than the statewide plan, but not a less restrictive one. So one possibility is that the governor picks the least restrictive path -- where everyone returns in person, with schools operating at full capacity -- and leaves it to local officials to impose more restrictions. 


What is the American Academy of Pediatrics? What are its guidelines for school reopening? Is it a trusted source of information? (Submitted by Ashley)


The American Academy of Pediatrics is a professional group of 67,000 pediatricians and its recent guidelines emphasized the importance of getting kids back in school. They said the risk for children is relatively low -- for catching the virus, for getting seriously ill and for spreading the virus. And they note that there are serious risks to keeping kids at home -- not just the danger that they’ll fall behind academically, but that they’re at risk of going hungry, of abuse and neglect going undetected, of becoming depressed because of isolation.


But the academy’s president, Dr. Susan Goza, spoke with NPR the day after doing a roundtable at the White House on Tuesday, and she said districts do have to look at whether there’s an intense outbreak in the area.


“We know that COVID is still a dangerous virus and it’s circulating throughout the country. And there are definitely hotspots,” Goza told NPR.


“And so all decisions really have to be made with public health and the school officials looking at that as part of their decision making on whether they can reopen safely.”


The AAP is a trusted source but there are a lot of groups working to learn more about the coronavirus and the scientific consensus has been evolving.


How would children social distance if they go back to school in-person? (Submitted by Lisa, Montresa and Michelle)


This will be very tricky. Many parents of young children are worried that a socially distanced kindergarten, for instance, will miss the heart of the social experience and the hands-on learning. But it could also be difficult for middle and high school students who like to hug and look at each other’s phones.


North Carolina’s guidelines include some recommendations, like redoing cafeterias -- maybe even bringing meals to the rooms -- and creating one-way traffic in hallways and spacing out seats so students have some distance and aren’t facing each other.


Would students be required to wear masks?


Yes. Under the current state guidelines, middle and high school students would be required to wear them. At the last CMS board meeting, there was a lot of talk about how strongly schools can encourage the elementary students to wear them too, even if they’re not legally required.


Remember: we’re not just talking about the health of the students, who may be relatively low-risk, but the health of all the employees exposed to those students. And many of them are very worried about picking up the virus and taking it home to loved ones who may be high risk.


Also, this may be a hard rule to enforce. Kids will be out on the playground being active. They’ll have to take the masks off to eat or get a drink of water. So there’s just not going to be a perfect way of keeping their faces covered every minute they’re in school.


Will colleges and universities reopen? (Submitted by Shonquella)


Most colleges and universities have already rearranged schedules and shifted a lot of courses online to try to avoid the kind of close-packed classrooms and dorms that would be risky. To get the most up-to-date information, check the individual school’s website.


What should you expect if your child is starting kindergarten in the fall? (Submitted by Christine)


There aren’t any easy answers for parents. We don’t know for sure that students will be allowed to return in-person in August.


But we do know that when they go to school, students will see their teachers in masks and be asked to do a lot of hand-washing. Many classroom gatherings will have to be spread out if not eliminated, along with the centers where children normally learn through hands-on play and share supplies with their classmates.


What if a child doesn’t do well with virtual learning? (Submitted by Lisa)


Tens of thousands of students in North Carolina didn’t do well with virtual learning last year, whether it was because of their personal learning style or disabilities, because they didn’t have good internet access, because of language barriers or because they just didn’t participate much. A lot of parents were underwhelmed with the lessons their kids got online after the coronavirus closing. Many educators had to shift to remote learning with very little notice.


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is trying to assure families that it has learned from and built on that experience. It has created a whole new digital platform.


But the bottom line for families is, if your school says it’s going to rely on remote learning for all or part of the year, you’re pretty much on your own if you want an alternative. For example, one group of families is interviewing teachers in hopes of finding someone who will work part-time teaching a small group of young children in one neighborhood. But not every family has the resources to do something like that.


What would reopening look like for teachers? Will they get special training or hazard pay? (Submitted by Scott)


The state has issued broad guidelines for three scenarios, but it’s going to come down to a school-by-school decision about what any individual classroom will look like. And principals can’t really start making those decisions until the state charts a path.


There will likely be training, which will have to cover everything from classroom management to sanitation procedures. No hazard pay. The General Assembly and the governor have been deadlocked over a budget, which means for the last two years there hasn’t been a real cost-of-living raise for teachers.


How will teachers’ assistants be affected? (Submitted by Carol)


That’s unclear. Assistants are often tapped to work up-close and personal with students who need extra help -- which could change.


Would all school employees and students be required to get a coronavirus test or quarantine for 14 days before school starts? (Submitted by Stacy)


We don’t know for sure but it would be tricky to execute. CMS alone has about 19,000 employees and almost 150,000 students. Public schools statewide employ around 200,000 people and teach 1.5 million students. Testing everyone would require a lot of staff and a lot of money.


We do know there will be temperature checks and symptom screening for all adults and children who enter school buildings. We also expect to see a lot of volunteers and community partners kept out to minimize the risk.


What will happen if a child shows up at school with a fever?


This is one of many questions CMS has talked about. It has considered having staff and space for at least a couple of student holding rooms per school. It’s also talked about how quickly it would isolate students, staff or teachers and when it would start contact tracing.


At the most recent state Board of Education meeting, members talked about how a lot of teachers are going to either get sick or be forced to isolate because of exposure, so they’re going to need to have a large group of strong substitutes on call.


What if a parent doesn’t want to send their child back to in-person school because they’re worried about the virus?(Submitted by Emily)


If your children go to CMS, the district has said it will offer a remote-learning option for any family that chooses it. It’s not clear if other districts and charter schools will follow suit.


Do you have more questions about the coronavirus or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

Keep up with future FAQ City episodes by subscribing to the podcast on Apple PodcastsNPR One, or Google Play.