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NC Education Board Wants Schools Reopened By End Of March

Catherine Truitt
NC Department of Public Safety
Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, shown here at a Feb. 2 news conference, urged the state Department of Health and Human Services to better explain what it wants to see before recommending all districts offer daily, in-person instruction.

RALEIGH — Top North Carolina education officials on Thursday called for all of the state's 115 school districts to make available at least partial in-person instruction by the end of the month to any of the system's 1.5 million students who want it.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously to support a resolution that agreed with new guidance state health officials outlined a day earlier. The statement also encourages local school boards to act swiftly to implement the recommended reopening.

“Public school units should resume providing all students enrolled in grades kindergarten through 12th grade with the option of in-person learning to the fullest extent possible,” the resolution states, adding that school boards should adopt plans to reopen by the end of March “as soon as possible.”

Actions from public health officials and education leaders this week encourage school reopening but do not mandate it, however.

That differs from GOP leaders at the legislature, who are still working to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that would compel districts not yet fully open to offer an in-person option to all students who want it. The governor has encouraged districts to reopen but wants school boards to have the flexibility to shut back down in the event of an emergency, such as a possible COVID-19 resurgence in their community. Cooper has appointed several members to the state's education board.

Eric Davis, chairman of the state education board, wants every pupil to be able to return to five-day-a-week instruction inside a physical classroom. “I can’t say it with more importance: It is absolutely essential that we get our students back into school. Every student, every day, into every school.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, who signed the resolution with Davis, still criticized state health officials for not going further in easing restrictions that would make it easier for kids to return to classrooms. While elementary schools are allowed to reopen without 6 feet of separation between seated students, middle and high schools must adhere to the physical distancing guidance.

Truitt wants students learning in person five days a week under Plan A, rather than having to rotate in and out on certain days under Plan B. She worries the state's distancing requirements may not make it possible to offer every child a daily in-person option, particularly in schools with smaller sized classrooms that had kids seated closer together before the pandemic.

Truitt, a Republican elected statewide in November who is not a voting member on the state education board, asked representatives from North Carolina's health department to explain when the distancing threshold could be relaxed to 3 feet and what metrics the state would need to hit in order for health officials to ease distancing restrictions.

“It’s time for you all to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘This is what needs to happen in order for kids to be back in school,'" Truitt said.

DHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry did not offer specifics but said the state would rely on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“All signs point in a very positive direction," Gale Perry said.

The vast majority of districts are or will soon be back in the classroom at least partially.

State House Republicans apparently unwilling to wait for a compromise with Cooper announced they’ll debate a measure next week that would let several K-12 districts offer in-person instruction without 6 feet of space. Because bills like the one being proposed apply to fewer than 15 counties, the proposal would not need the governor’s approval.

Truitt worries the updated guidance could contribute to continued learning loss, particularly for students who haven't been allowed inside a classroom in more than 11 months.

“It feels like we’re pushing the goal post," Truitt said. “We’re pushing this further and further, kicking the can down the street. It just continues to be an exercise in frustration for our local superintendents to continue to have the tool kit updated and guidance issued that doesn’t really change anything.”


Associated Press reporter Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.


Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson.


Anderson is a corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.