RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Lt. Gov. Dan Forest for the first time vowed to repeal the statewide mask mandate and immediately reopen schools if elected governor.
The Republican, hoping to unseat incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, appeared at a news conference with Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), educators and parents to lobby the current administration to throw out the current Plan B protocols for the academic year.
"It's time to open the classrooms back up. It's time to allow parents to decide whether their kids should be in the classroom," Forest said. "The Plan A-B-C concept laid out by the Governor was a failed plan. All over the state, parents are fed up by the virtual learning that Gov. Cooper's plan has forced on North Carolina. 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 has been unabashed in his critique of the Governor's handling of the crisis, both in his words and in actions: his campaign events often draw crowds who chose not to social distance nor wear masks. Forest, likewise, did not wear a mask before or after his remarks, even as Berger and other speakers did.
"When I'm governor, I would lift the mask mandate for the state," Forest said for the first time. "Science is not a one-size-fits-all. You'd have no science without skepticism. All science is based on skepticism. And you need to have skeptics. As governor, I would open the schools. That would be the plan. The schools can determine how they do that safely."
As of this week, 55 of North Carolina's 115 school districts remain on an all-virtual curriculum. Those include the large districts, like Wake County Public School System and Durham Public Schools, among others. Nine of those 55--including Wake County--have scheduled or identified target dates for the transition back to the classroom.
The other 60 districts are operating on a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning, and all but two of them offer families the option to go all-virtual should they chose that for their children.
Map not displaying properly? Click here to view in a new window.
That includes Moore County, where one group of students attends school Monday and Tuesday while the other group comes on Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are virtual for everyone.
"I can tell you there has been buy-in to where we are right now," Stefanie Phillips, the principal at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, said. "We have not had to send one child home for being noncompliant with a mask, and no faculty member. We're doing one-way hallways. We limit people in bathrooms. What we're seeing is kids want to be here and so they know here's the process. Everybody's doing it, and that's how I know it's sustainable."
Phillips conceded there has been one staff member who contracted the virus and some students who tested positive, but she said there's been no evidence of any COVID-19 transmission in the classroom. On the contrary, she said, just two classrooms were quarantined.
"I think we're a model for Plan B and I think you need to get other schools through Plan B and you need to see that. Once we get there, and get everybody comfortable, then you move on and make that transition."
The official statewide data appears to show the current strategy is working--and with wiggle room if schools do indeed open up full time. Since March, North Carolinians ages 0-17 account for just 1 death and 11% of all cases. A recent update on schools, moreover, report just eight clusters and 47 cases among staff and students.
A spokesman for Governor Roy Cooper on Wednesday issued a statement responding to Lt. Governor Forest and Sen. Berger's news conference:
"It's stunning that these elected leaders want to fill up our classrooms today without a safety plan, take away the state-wide mask requirement and put our children at risk, all to try and make a political splash. We all want to get our children back in school as soon as possible but we must follow the science and data and make sure we do so safely."