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Analysis: Schools Close To Curb Coronavirus Spread. What Comes Next Is Unclear.

Phil Roeder

This morning every public school in North Carolina is closed as state and local officials hash out a strategy for keeping kids safe and educated during what could be a prolonged closure for coronavirus protection. The first steps were taken in a series of weekend meetings and phone conferences.

WFAE education reporter Ann Doss Helms joins Morning Edition host Lisa Worf to talk about what we know and what we don’t know.

LISA WORF: Ann, can you give our listeners a quick recap?

ANN DOSS HEMS: I’ve been in journalism 39 years and covering education for 18 of them, and I’ve never seen anything like the past 72 hours. We’re basically watching an attempt to reinvent the public education system on the fly, because we could be looking at weeks when the only way students can take classes is online or by home-delivered paper packets.

So by Friday, it was clear that the threat of COVID-19 was in North Carolina, in the Charlotte area and likely to keep spreading. I think every school district was watching the state for guidance, but when the governor and state health director addressed the public late Friday afternoon, the message was confusing. The governor called for all large gatherings to disband, but the health director didn’t recommend closing schools.

Here’s how CMS board member Rhonda Cheek put it:

RHONDA CHEEK (RECORDING): There’s so many mixed messages out there. The governor says you don’t have to close the schools but don’t have gatherings of more than 100 people, yet we have hundreds and hundreds of kids eating lunch together in cafeterias.

HELMS: Cheek was speaking at a Friday night emergency board meeting where CMS announced it would move up spring break but send kids back to school for the first three days of this week. Iredell-Statesville and Mooresville also announced closings late Friday, and on Saturday Wake County Public Schools voted to close after news that one of their elementary school teachers had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Almost immediately after that, the governor issued an executive order that all public schools would close for at least two weeks, starting Monday. By the way, yes, that does include charter schools. And I’m willing to bet most private schools have followed suit, although the governor’s order didn’t address them.

And South Carolina’s governor followed suit on Sunday.

WORF: So why the sudden about-face from North Carolina?

HELMS: Closing schools, you have to think of its a bit like chemotherapy – there are some very serious side effects, so you don’t want to do it until you’re sure it’s needed.

Here’s what state health director Mandy Cohen said Saturday:

MANDY COHEN (RECORDING): School closures have major consequences for families and communities that go beyond this virus, and it’s too often those with the least resources that bear the greatest burdens of this decision.

HELMS: The major consequences include working parents who may have to choose between losing their jobs or leaving their kids home alone, and that includes parents who work in health care, or staff the nursing homes and assisted living centers that are now under lockdown. They include thousands of hourly workers, like bus drivers and cafeteria staff, who don’t get paid when kids aren’t in school. And there are still references to “maybe this will all blow over by the end of March,” but these consequences probably mean figuring out how to take distance learning to massive scale for a good part of this school year.

But Gov. Roy Cooper, Mandy Cohen and state Superintendent Mark Johnson all said it would be worse to have a hodgepodge of local closings and to have employees and families freaking out about returning to schools that don’t close immediately. So, they made a statewide decision to close and regroup.

WORF: What exactly does this closure mean? Will teachers still be working? Are students expected to start online lessons right away?

HELMS: You know, a whole lot of people who watched Saturday’s announcement walked away wondering those same things – including the leaders of local school districts.

There was a big conference call yesterday afternoon, and I think there’s still a lot of confusion.

After that call, CMS sent employees a letter saying that things are still in so much flux that it’s impossible to provide guidance for more than a day or two at a time. I know that both CMS and Union County Public Schools are using today as a teacher workday. Union county’s notes said parents would get messages from principals about coming to schools to pick up essential items like laptops or medication.

CMS notified all employees that they’re expected to report to work to start figuring out what needs to happen to convert quickly to distance learning. For instance, teachers and school administrators will be tallying which students need devices and Wi-Fi access to take part and figuring out how to make that happen.

That memo says CMS employees who can’t come to work because of health or child care issues have to take leave or comp time – and of course that’s raising some concerns and questions.

It’s not clear what happens starting tomorrow, though the CMS letter mentioned teachers “gathering their belongings and materials,” so maybe they’ll all be working remotely?

WORF: What will you be looking at moving forward?

HELMS: So many things. I wish I could clone myself. I want to hear how teachers are ramping up distance instruction – often while dealing with their own kids suddenly being out of schools. I want to know whether child care centers will close, or whether they’ll start taking in extra kids, which creates a whole new challenge. What happens if older kids who are out of school start hanging out at fast food places or malls? How are schools and community partners going to feed kids who rely on school breakfast and lunch? How can volunteers help? What about state exams and proms and graduation?

So, I guess all I can say is stay tuned.

Stay up to date with the latest developments with WFAE's Coronavirus Breaking News Blog

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.
Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.