North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Saturday closing all K-12 public schools in the state for at least two weeks and prohibiting gatherings of 100 or more people amid coronavirus concerns.
The school closings go into effect Monday. The prohibition of large gatherings does not affect restaurants and shopping malls, Cooper said.
The announcement comes as 23 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been found in 12 North Carolina counties, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Two of those cases are in Mecklenburg County.
As the roster of North Carolina school closings snowballed – and as parents said they wouldn’t risk exposure to the coronavirus by sending their kids to schools that stayed open – Cooper announced his executive order.
His announcement came after the state’s two largest districts made their own decisions to close – CMS on Friday night and Wake County on Saturday. The Wake closing came after word that one of the district’s elementary school teachers has a confirmed case of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said it’s not clear whether students will need to be tested. She adding that state testing supply limitations remain a concern; she estimated that about 500 tests had been performed between the state testing lab and LabCorp.
The prohibition of large gatherings came after Cooper offered a recommendation Thursday that events of 100 or more people should be avoided. Not all events followed the guideline, he said.
"This is a risk we cannot tolerate," Cooper said. "No concert is worth the spread of this pandemic."
Meanwhile, when it came to schools, Cooper said the rapidly-changing patchwork of district decisions required a two-week breather to size up the situation and to craft a state strategy in case longer closings are needed. He said state health and education officials will form an education and nutrition working group "to come up with smart solutions for safe child care, meal service and other equity issues."
"I know at least one district is using school buses to deliver meals to children on bus routes," Cooper said.
The executive order means an abrupt change of plans for about 1.5 million students in North Carolina’s school districts and charter schools – as well as their families, and tens of thousands of educators who may have to convert to distance instruction if schools remain closed for weeks.
"We are working on efforts to deal with these challenges," Cooper said, "from changes to unemployment insurance to special funding from the state and federal government to help us get through this."
Cooper and Cohen both cited the importance of making sure health care workers don’t have to leave work to stay home with children.
"We know they need child care so they can remain at the front lines of this pandemic," Cohen said.
As recently as Friday afternoon, Cohen had said she wasn’t advising schools to close if they didn’t have confirmed cases of the virus. But she and Cooper said things are changing so fast the state had to respond.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, said he and the Republican-dominated General Assembly, will work with Cooper, a Democrat, to find money and revise policies as needed. Lingering questions include whether students will have to take state exams and how they might be used in school ratings if the calendar is disrupted. Johnson said his message to superintendents is "do what’s best for your students, and we will come back and worry about the funding and the calendar flexibility, the testing waivers – none of that’s important right now. Right now what’s important is the health of our state."
Many questions remain to be answered – including how this closing will affect pay for hourly workers who don’t get paid when students aren’t in school, as well as scheduling and leave time for teachers, who are salaried but may end up working without students in their classrooms.
For CMS families and educators, the executive order appears to quash a near-uprising against a closing plan approved by the school board Friday night. That plan called for keeping schools open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then closing Thursday for an early spring break.
By Saturday morning, social media feeds were full of parents and teachers saying they wouldn’t be there Monday. They said it made no sense to send their kids to school when the governor was telling people to cancel gatherings of more than 100 people.
Saturday afternoon CMS said that not only will schools be closed on Monday, but the school board will vote to undo the calendar revision and restore spring break to its original time in April.