By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina legislators and state education officials reached a bipartisan agreement last Thursday to require public schools to offer some form of in-person classes for students for the rest of the year.
Cooper signed Senate Bill 220, described as an act to provide access to in-person learning for students in grade kindergarten through twelve. The bill, now ratified, requires that “All local school administrative units shall provide in-person instruction to students in grades kindergarten through 12 enrolled in that unit in accordance with this act for the remainder of the scheduled 2020-2021 school year, beginning no later than the first instructional day scheduled in the adopted school calendar that occurs 21 days following the effective date of this act.”
Specifically, school districts must offer Plan A, in-person instruction with minimal social distancing, for children in kindergarten through fifth grade; and either Plan A, Plan B (in-person instruction with six feet of social distancing), or both to students in grades 6-12. While local school administrators can choose either Plan A or Plan B for middle and high schools, elementary schools must offer Plan A.
Parents should still be able to choose not to send their child back for in-person instruction. Although schools must offer Plan A for elementary, and Plan A or Plan B for middle and high schools, the bill also instructed school districts to continue offering a remote-only learning option, for families who don’t want to send their child back to in-person classes.
The bill represented a compromise between Cooper and legislators in the state General Assembly to ensure schools will reopen their doors across North Carolina. Although he stated that he generally agreed with previous attempts at legislating school reopening, Cooper vetoed a prior bill that didn’t have the safety requirements that are included in S.B. 220.
“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement after signing the bill.
Cooper and the State Board of Education, in conjunction with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, previously urged that schools should open. Data shows that young children are less likely to spread the COVID-19 virus, and are less likely to suffer serious illness should they catch it, health officials have stated.
Additionally, the state has widened its efforts in the last month to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to school staff and childcare providers. Over 350 of about 1,400 school staff members in Hoke County have received at least the first dose of the two-shot vaccine series, according to school administrators.
The Hoke County Schools Board of Education was working to get clarification on how to comply with the bill, Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless said Monday.
“We will be watching the (State Board of Education) SBE meeting this afternoon for some final clarification on S.B. 220 and will proceed with our planning. We will share as soon as possible,” she wrote in an email.
A little over half of all Hoke County public school students are currently attending in-person instruction on a Plan B schedule, while the rest of the student population opted to enroll in online instruction for the spring semester.
The state legislation included some safety measures. S.B. 220 specified that schools must comply with pandemic safety requirements set down in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. If local boards of education choose to start Plan A in grades 6-12, they must notify the Department of Health and Human Services and describe a plan for moving to the minimal social distancing instruction. Those schools must also partner with the ABC Science Collaborative of the School of Medicine at Duke University to allow the collaborative to collect and analyze data including “robust” contact tracing, according to the bill.
Senate Bill 220 allows local school boards some leeway. Local boards of education will have the option to change the school calendar to reschedule teacher workdays to help prepare for moving elementary schools to a Plan A schedule. Local schools will also still have the authority to make day-to-day decisions about shifting certain classes or schools to online-only learning due to potential COVID-19 exposures “that result in insufficient school personnel or required student quarantines.”
Several Hoke County schools have temporarily shut down a classroom, or the entire school due to potential COVID-19 exposures. Recently, East Hoke Middle School shifted to online-only instruction through Tuesday, March 16. Students were set to return on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
S.B. 220 additionally granted the governor the authority to use an executive order to close an individual school administrative unit, when necessary “to protect the health and safety of students and employees in that unit.” In the same section, Cooper agreed to a compromise that unlike at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, “the Governor shall not order a statewide closure, restriction or reduction of the operation of schools in a single executive order.”
For the latest updates on school schedules, visit Hoke County Schools website at https://www.hcs.k12.nc.us or the school system Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/HokeCountySchools.