NC State Board of Education votes to approve NCDHHS guidelines encouraging schools to offer in-person learning

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The NC State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to adopt new guidance from North Carolina health officials encouraging schools to reopen for in-person learning by the end of March.

The board also adopted an updated DHHS Strong Schools Toolkit on school reopening.

The updated guidelines were released from NCDHHS on Wednesday and stress offering in-person learning "to the fullest extent possible while following all public health protocols" by only allowing higher-risk students and families to opt for remote learning for their children.

Actions from public health officials and education leaders this week encourage school reopening but do not mandate it, however. The updated guidelines come as COVID-19 metrics and trends continue to move in the right direction and amid Gov. Roy Cooper's continued easing of restrictions.

That differs from GOP leaders at the legislature, who are still working to override Cooper's veto of a bill that would compel districts not yet fully open to offer an in-person option to all students who want it. The governor has encouraged districts to reopen but wants school boards to have the flexibility to shut back down in the event of an emergency, such as a possible COVID-19 resurgence in their community. Cooper has appointed several members to the state's education board.

Eric Davis, chairman of the state education board, wants every pupil to be able to return to five-day-a-week instruction inside a physical classroom.

"I can't say it with more importance: It is absolutely essential that we get our students back into school. Every student, every day, into every school," Davis said.

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"Extensive research tells us we can bring students back to the classroom with the right measures in place," said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen. "And students need in-person school not only for academics, but to learn social skills, get reliable meals, and to continue to grow and thrive."

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, who signed the resolution with Davis, still criticized state health officials for not going further in easing restrictions that would make it easier for kids to return to classrooms. While elementary schools are allowed to reopen without 6 feet (1.8 meters) of separation between seated students, middle and high schools must adhere to the physical distancing guidance.
Truitt wants students learning in person five days a week under Plan A, rather than having to rotate in and out on certain days under Plan B. She worries the state's distancing requirements may not make it possible to offer every child a daily in-person option, particularly in schools with smaller sized classrooms that had kids seated closer together before the pandemic.

Truitt, a Republican elected statewide in November who is not a voting member on the state education board, asked representatives from North Carolina's health department to explain when the distancing threshold could be relaxed to 3 feet (0.9 meters) and what metrics the state would need to hit in order for health officials to ease distancing restrictions.

"It's time for you all to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This is what needs to happen in order for kids to be back in school,'" Truitt said.

The vast majority of districts are or will soon be back in the classroom at least partially. Right now, 90 out of 115 school districts in North Carolina have had some form of in-person learning, since August.

"If we can open safely, we should have the opportunity for every child to go to school that needs to go to school," Harmony VanGundy, a Wake County parent of two told ABC11 on Thursday.

Other parents also wlecomed the news.

"Personally, I am in favor of an in-person option," Antonio Jones said. I think providing parents with an option in general is always a good thing."

Education leaders are still pushing for more personal protective equipment, cleaning crews and mental health counselors.

"This resolution is a great sentiment to center students and their education, their social and emotional health, their mental health," Durham School Board member Jovonia Lewis said. "At the same time, we still need the resources to go along with it to do in person well and safe."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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