RALEIGH — Leaders of North Carolina's largest public school district agreed Tuesday to stick with only online student learning to start the academic year, marking another system not yet ready to return to classrooms next month due to COVID-19.
The school board for the Wake County system, which has more than 160,000 students, unanimously approved a schedule different from the one it approved three weeks ago. Board members had earlier committed to a rotational plan in which students would return by receiving in-person teaching one week out of every three.
Superintendent Cathy Moore said her staff’s recommendation had changed as coronavirus hospitalizations and the percentage of positive cases have increased, and with Gov. Roy Cooper's K-12 announcement last week. He said that while public schools could hold in-person instruction provided everyone wears face coverings and classrooms hold fewer students, districts also could decide to conduct all instruction online.
North Carolina reported on Tuesday another record-high number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital at 1,179, narrowly topping the previous daily record set last week. The number of positive cases in the state since the pandemic began is nearing 103,000, with about 1,670 virus-related deaths, according to state Department of Health and Human Services data.
The Cumberland County school board also voted earlier Tuesday to operate remotely through at least Sept. 25. The Durham County, Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro systems already have decided to keep buildings shuttered when classes resume Aug. 17.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, No. 2 in system population statewide, agreed last week that it will have in-person orientation during the first two weeks, followed by online instruction for the immediate future.
While Cooper has said he's been aiming to get students back in classrooms this fall, the governor said Tuesday he saw no reason to alter his directive in light of decisions by the largest districts.
"We believe that we're in good shape where we are. We want those local school districts to make the best decisions that they can for those children," Cooper told reporters. “There's no easy answer to all of this but I do think we have a good plan in place.”
Wake County's amended proposal would have all students work online at first. Prekindergarten and special education students would return to class as soon as Sept. 8. Other students would return when practical, although Moore said already extremely high enrollment for Wake County's “virtual academy" could make it easier for students to return to classrooms under social distancing guidelines.
Cooper announced on Tuesday that over 900,000 face masks and other supplies were being shipped this week to cooperative extension offices in 31 counties for distribution to agricultural workers. Many farm workers live in close conditions, increasing their risk for the virus, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said.
"Some of these supplies have been difficult for farmers to source as demand has exceeded supply. I am grateful that farm workers and farmers have been prioritized for these much-needed materials,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a news release.
Cohen said North Carolina's case trends show "this pandemic remains a simmer, not a boil” in the state and that wearing face masks in public places remain critical to prevent them from getting out of control. Cooper, who issued a statewide mask requirement almost four weeks ago, had stern words for store patrons who won't comply.
“Either wear one or don’t go in the store,” he said. ”The refusal to wear a mask is selfish. It infringes on the life and liberty of everyone else in the store.”