The announcement means administrators can implement 'Plan A' of the state's protocols as early as October 5, but officials are limiting that option to kindergarten through fifth grade only; middle schools and high schools may still offer in-person learning under 'Plan B', which requires reduced capacity and more stringent safety measures.
However, all students, regardless of which option their school districts choose to open under, will be required to wear face coverings, stay socially distant as much as possible and wash their hands frequently.
"Of all the disruptions COVID-19 has created, education is the most challenging to address," Cooper said. "Parenting is hard enough without a pandemic. Same goes for teaching or running a school. The number one opening priority during this pandemic has been our schools."
WATCH: Gov. Cooper's full announcement
Since the announcement, both Wake and Durham county school systems said they are in the process of further discussing their decision to propose within the next two weeks. WCPSS on Sept., 23 and DPS on Sept., 24.
ABC11 reaching out to Wake County School Board Chairman Keith Sutton who said that the governor's decision will influence their meeting.
WATCH as parents react to Gov. Cooper's announcement on elementary schools
The governor's news conference from the Emergency Operations Center comes exactly one month since the start of the academic year, which began August 17. While 60 of the state's 115 districts are welcoming back students to the classroom, the remaining 55 districts - including Wake County Public School System, Durham Public Schools and Cumberland County Schools - remain all virtual in 'Plan C.'
Indeed, the decision ultimately depends on each district's school board, and many are committing to keep their status quo regardless of the change in protocols. Also on Thursday, the Cumberland County Schools Board of Education voted 6-3 against a proposed transition to Plan B, and board members signaled classes may remain virtual until December.
Cooper echoed their feelings, adding, "I want to be clear: plan A may not be right at this time fo every school district and for every family." He explained that districts would have the flexibility to create a reopening plan that suits their community's specific metrics, and stressed the importance of offering full-time virtual learning.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen, who has long said getting kids back in the classroom was her top priority, said she supported the decision because of how the data points to a lower risk of transmission among younger children.
Since March, North Carolinians ages 0-17 account for just 1 death and 11% of all cases. A recent update on schools, moreover, reports just eight clusters and 47 cases among staff and students.
Despite the progress, Thursday's decision may do little to placate outspoken critics of the governor's handling of the crisis, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican hoping to unseat Cooper in the November election.
WATCH: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest tells voters he plans to reopen all schools if elected
"The Plan A-B-C concept laid out by the Governor was a failed plan," Forest said at his own news conference on Wednesday. "We've known for months that closed schools don't work for working families. We must reopen schools to give parents the option of sending their children to the classroom full-time. There is no science or data anywhere that suggest kids should not be in the classroom right now."
Forest also said he would repeal the statewide mask mandate, and he was noncommittal on offering any guidance for schools when it comes to reopening amidst the pandemic.
However, Cooper responded to Forest's remarks during Thursday's news conference, "It is irresponsible to say we are going to fill up our classrooms now with no safety measures and now masks. Science is clear on masks. They work to slow the spread of the virus."
Shortly after Cooper's announcement, the North Carolina Association of Educators president Tamkika Walker Kelly released a statement cautioning educators potential return to the classroom, "Returning to in-person instruction is the goal for every educator, but it must be done safely. School districts already have significant flexibility for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger."
Sen. Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) noting that the announcement is a "step in the right direction".
"It's puzzling to me how the Governor can insist that only he can make decisions about smaller issues like playground openings, but then pass off political responsibility for something as important as schools," Berger wrote in a statement. "That's not leadership - it's avoiding the tough calls in an election year."