North Carolina’s Plans for Reopening Public Schools in the Time of COVID 19 – A Little Like Trying to Nail Jell-O® to a Wall

Waiting and wondering what “back to school” will look like for North Carolina K-12 students during the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic, has fueled anxiety and some frustration in many parents, guardians, students, teachers and school administrators. On July 14th, Governor Cooper provided guidelines for North Carolina’s public school students to return to school starting August 17th. He announced that based on the information currently available, schools would open on August 17th with both in-school and remote learning. He went on to say that school districts should provide full remote learning options for parents / guardians who prefer it or districts can elect for all students to do solely remote learning if that is what they deem best for their school district.

The consensus seems to be that concerned parties’ anxiety and frustration remain high after this announcement because of the lack of definitive information and certainties. While those sentiments are understandable, the reality is that in the time of COVID 19, there are few certainties other than the certainty that in many aspects of our lives, we are operating under a new normal that is shifting and evolving. The primary positive derived from the governor’s announcement is that it was the necessary step to allow local school districts to draft appropriate reopening plans.

As it stands now, North Carolina public schools may open under either Plan B or C. Plan B includes measures and requirements related to masks, social distancing, cleaning / disinfecting, screening, visitor and group limits. Under this plan, schools would re-open for in-school instruction on August 17th but face coverings are required for all students; the number of students, staff and visitors allowed in schools will be limited to ensure that individuals maintain six feet of social distancing; symptom screening including checking temperatures must be conducted. For the other requirements and recommendations please click here. Because of the number of students in most North Carolina public schools, few schools will be able to accommodate all students for in-school learning each day, due to the social distancing requirements. This means that online learning options will have to be available for the students not in in-school learning on a given day. While this is the preferred plan as set out by Governor Cooper, school districts may also elect Plan C which is remote learning only. Governor Cooper has said that even for schools that choose Plan B, they should offer a remote learning only option for parents / guardians who feel that is best for their student.

Having been given the “green light” to create return-to-school plans and guidance as to what those plans should include, school districts across North Carolina have and are working to provide specifics for families / teachers in their districts. Implementation will come in numerous varieties as the districts were given wide latitude in how to structure a Plan B, hybrid of online and in-class learning if that is what is chosen over a Plan C remote only scenario. For example, Charlotte Mecklenburg County schools have already approved a plan that will divide students into three groups. During the first two-weeks of school, each group will have a few days of in-person instruction. Starting in week three, all students will engage solely in remote learning until further notice. Guilford County schools haven’t yet settled on a plan though the superintendent proposes online learning only for five weeks and then Scenario A which would have all high school students participating only in remote learning with school facilities being used to provide in-class learning for all students grades K-8. Winston-Salem / Forsyth County schools are reviewing proposals but already provide a remote learning only option through WS/FCS virtual academy. Davidson County schools have announced that they will use a version of Plan B, in which students would be divided into two groups with one group attending in-class instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays serving as teacher work days and remote learning.

There is no perfect plan under these circumstances and there are many variables and interests to consider. Health / safety is obviously priority #1 but there are also families with childcare challenges to consider. It is refreshing to see plans like scenario A from Guilford County that addresses both safety and the childcare challenge. By having high schoolers engage in remote learning only and K-8 students having daily, in-class instruction, social distancing is maintained and the age group with which there are generally the most significant childcare issues will be attending school daily.

Over the coming couple of weeks, there should be some relief for parents / guardians, students and teachers as each school district provides specific details for their reopening plans. Knowledge is power as they say.