Cooper urges all K-12 schools to reopen for in-person learning

TOGETHER, APART: The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released updated guidance for school reopening on Feb. 2. All students and staff will be required to wear face coverings and monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, but only schools operating under Plan B will be expected to maintain 6 feet of social distancing. Graphic courtesy of NCDHHS

Gov. Roy Cooper is “strongly encouraging” all K-12 public schools in North Carolina to return to in-person learning for students at all grade levels, he announced at a Feb. 2 press conference. “We’ve learned so much more about this virus, and now, it’s time to get our kids back into the classroom,” he said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the N.C. State Board of Education, released updated guidance on Tuesday outlining safety protocols for in-person learning. The revised policy now recommends that K-12 students should return to in-person learning five days a week “to the fullest extent possible” while maintaining baseline safety standards, including consistent use of face coverings and regular monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. 

The Plan A, B and C categories — previously used to delineate in-person, a hybrid of in-person and remote teaching and fully remote learning, respectively — are now being used to designate social distancing requirements. Cooper encouraged all elementary schools to follow Plan A, which does not require 6-foot social distancing between students and teachers. Middle and high schools are encouraged to reopen under Plan B, which requires 6-foot social distancing at all times. 

School districts should also keep a fully remote option for high-risk students and staff, as well as families who opt in, Cooper said. That option would remain known as Plan C.

New research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that young children are less likely to become infected or spread COVID-19 to other students or staff members, explained Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of health and human services. The CDC study cited North Carolina as an example that schools can reopen safety during periods of high community spread if proper safety protocols are followed. 

Immediately following Cooper’s announcement, the N.C. Association of Educators released a statement calling for the vaccination of all teachers and staff before resuming in-person learning. The state’s current COVID-19 distribution plan places educators in Phase 3, along with all other essential frontline workers; NCDHHS has so far only opened vaccinations through Phase 2, which includes health care workers and residents age 65 or older. 

“If Governor Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said. “In the meantime, we encourage local school boards to continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions.

Buncombe County Schools are currently scheduled to continue remote learning through Friday, Feb. 12; the Buncombe County Board of Education will meet on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m. On Jan. 11, Asheville City Schools announced it would continue remote learning for K-12 students through Tuesday, March 16. Henderson County Public Schools returned to the classroom Feb. 1, with students through the third grade attending daily in-person classes and those in grades 4-12 attending hybrid virtual and in-person lessons. 

Buncombe County’s COVID-19 metrics improving

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Buncombe County continues to decrease, Public Health Director Stacie Saunders told the county Board of Commissioners at a Feb. 2 briefing. The county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is now 6.1%, marking a 1.4 percentage point decrease in the last week and a halving of the rate from earlier in the winter. 

As of Feb. 2, 11,625 COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in Buncombe County. The health department has scheduled 2,040 first-dose vaccine appointments for the weeks of Feb. 8 and Feb. 15; more than 34,000 people still remain on the county wait list for Groups 1 and 2. Saunders said the next round of appointments will open to residents with waitlist numbers in the 4,000-6,000 range.

Dr. William Hathaway, chief medical officer for Mission Health, said COVID-19 hospitalizations at his hospital system have been decreasing since mid-January. However, he urged residents to remain vigilant with their virus precautions, saying the trend could easily reverse at any point until vaccination becomes widespread.

New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are also stabilizing across North Carolina, Cooper said at the state briefing earlier in the day. On Feb. 2, NCDHHS reported 2,926 new cases, the lowest daily figure reported since Dec. 27. And the day before, 2,741 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, marking the eighth consecutive day of decreasing hospitalization figures.

In other news

  • NCDHHS will kick off a new livestream talk series to update residents on the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan on Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 5:30 p.m. The first “fireside chat” will feature Cohen and the Rev. William J. Barber II. Watch live here
  • A special Affordable Care Act enrollment period will open Monday, Feb. 15, for anyone who has lost health insurance coverage since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services is providing free assistance to help people sign up for a plan; appointments can be made here. Enrollment will remain open though Saturday, May 15.
  • The Charles George VA Hospital in Asheville has administered 2,504 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to local veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs vaccine tracking database. An additional 33 veterans have completed the two-dose vaccination regimen. 

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About Molly Horak
Molly Horak served as a reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @molly_horak

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