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Cooper Says Schools Can Reopen At Limited Capacity; Phase 2 Restrictions Extended

Ann Doss Helms

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today he’ll allow North Carolina’s public schools to reopen Aug. 17 with buildings and buses at limited capacity, despite persistently high COVID-19 numbers. He also said the state's current Phase 2 level of coronavirus-safety restrictions will stay in place for three more weeks. 

The decision on schools leaves districts the option to open in remote-only mode if local officials decide it’s not safe to bring students and employees back, but it precludes bringing everyone back full-time.

District and charter school officials have been planning for three options, including the full return, for weeks. Now they must scramble to choose between limited capacity or fully remote options and execute a plan.

The guidance they had used for planning called for limiting schools and buses to 50% capacity in the hybrid Plan B, but a guide updated Tuesday says only that schools must ensure 6 feet of social distancing. 


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been focused on the hybrid, which involves splitting students into three groups to reduce crowding (some schools are filled well past 100% capacity). Each group would spend one week at school and two weeks at home learning remotely.

Aug. 17 is the reopening date mandated by the General Assembly.

The CMS board will call a meeting soon to decide which of the two remaining paths to pursue.

The Union County school board has a special meeting Tuesday night to act on reopening plans.

The reopening decision affects about 1.5 million students and 200,000 employees, as well as families and the state’s economy.

He delayed the announcement, originally set for July 1, saying he hoped to see COVID-19 numbers improve so students could return in person. Remote learning puts students at risk, not only of falling behind academically but of going hungry or being abused or neglected without anyone to intervene.

But cases continue to rise, in North Carolina and across the country. Monday public schools in Los Angeles and San Diego announced they would not reopen for in-person learning in August.

North Carolina officials had outlined three options: Allow schools to reopen at full capacity, allow them to open at 50% capacity or keep them closed, with all lessons being done remotely. Districts and charter schools have been planning for all three.

Many teachers have voiced concerns about being asked to return. The North Carolina Association of Educators is holding organizing and information sessions about how to create "the working and learning conditions we deserve through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Many educator and parents acknowledge there's no perfect balance of virus safety and in-person education.

"I think we are in a situation where there’s really no good option, you know? It’s picking between several bad options," says Alexandria Keilen, who teaches at a Charlotte charter school and has a child in Union County Public Schools.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has said families here will have the option to keep their kids home learning remotely. On Monday the district posted a video -- available in English and Spanish -- giving a preview of the remote program, including a sample of a first-grade reading lesson.

Phase 2 of North Carolina's three-part reopening plan had initially been set to expire June 26, but Cooper decided to extend it until July 17. On Tuesday, he said the current level of restrictions will stay in place for three more weeks, keeping bars and gyms closed. 

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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