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NC Health Officials Urge Daily In-Person Classes But Don't Say How To Do It

Mack Ross attends in-person class at Caldwell County's Davenport A+ School.
Caldwell County Schools
Mack Ross attends in-person class at Caldwell County's Davenport A+ School.

State health officials said Thursday they want to see North Carolina schools offer in-person classes five days a week. But it’s still unclear how crowded schools can make that happen.

Two days after Gov. Roy Cooper urged all school districts to bring back in-person classes, health officials briefed the state Board of Education. Health Director Elizabeth Tilson summarized a growing number of studies that show there’s little risk of spreading COVID-19 among students — or of students spreading the virus to staff — as long as safety measures are followed rigorously.

"What we’re really looking for is in-person instruction to the fullest extent possible, five days a week," Tilson said.

Image from Thursday's presentation to the North Carolina Board of Education.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
Image from Thursday's presentation to the North Carolina Board of Education.

That’s not mandatory, and it’s unclear how districts are supposed to make it happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found six-foot distancing to be the most effective way to control spread, with constant mask wearing a close second.

For middle and high schools, North Carolina requires six-foot distancing in classrooms and on buses. Elementary schools are allowed closer spacing.

Most districts in the Charlotte area have broken students into groups that rotate through in-person classes to allow for safe distancing. Many have students attending two days a week in person. Cabarrus County plans to bring elementary students in for four days a week starting Feb. 16.

Private schools, which are not required to follow the state’s distancing rules, are more likely to have daily in-person attendance. But Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, told the state board they’re also more likely to have COVID-19 clusters.

"We have, throughout the pandemic, continued to see private school clusters both be significantly, generally larger — they’re among our largest clusters within a school setting. And they’re also over two times as likely to have clusters," she said.

Neither the health officials nor the state board members addressed how public schools can observe safe distancing while offering daily in-person classes.

Thursday afternoon a bill that would require all school districts to offer in-person classes passed the state Senate 29-15.

All students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are learning remotely now. The board will decide next week whether to proceed with a plan to bring back in-person classes starting Feb. 15. That plan does not include daily in-person classes at any grade level.

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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.