News: CJ Exclusives

Governor closes K-12 schools for at least two weeks; food, child care questions remain

Image courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Image courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

School is canceled in North Carolina. Now, the state must decide how to handle nutrition, child care, and distance learning.  

The spread of coronavirus — which stands at 23 cases across the state — is enough for Gov. Roy Cooper to shut down K-12 public schools Monday, March 16. Closings will last at least two weeks, Cooper said during a Saturday news conference. The announcement bookends a whirlwind week that began with Cooper’s declaration of a statewide emergency to contain the spread of COVID-19 — the disease caused by coronavirus. A Wake County school teacher tested positive for coronavirus Saturday. The case had no bearing on the state’s decision to close school doors, Cooper said. 

Cooper’s executive order included a mandatory cancellation policy for gatherings of 100 or more people. The governor issued a strong recommendation against large events earlier this week, but too many groups failed to comply, he said. 

School closures mean more tough decisions ahead, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. Community involvement is essential for families who count on schools for essentials such as child care and meals. 

“School districts should coordinate with community groups to distribute meals to needy families,” Stoops said. “District communication systems should be used to make initial contact with families who may experience food insecurity due to the closure of schools.”

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction can offer free meals to “eligible children,” thanks to a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Superintendent Mark Johnson tweeted Friday.

DPI submitted nutrition recommendations to an emergency working group that’s finding solutions to school closing complications, Johnson said. School buses may be used to deliver meals, or certain schools may be used as food pick-up spots for families in need. 

“This is a decision that no one wanted to see happen, but it is the right decision,” Johnson said during the Saturday news conference.

School superintendents are preparing distance learning options for their students, Johnson said.

Teachers may struggle to deliver assignments, Stoops said. Some families have computers and reliable internet, but others don’t.

“Alternative means of the delivery of educational materials should be considered,” he said.

Some companies are stepping up to fill gaps in broadband internet coverage. Monday, the day North Carolina’s public schools close, internet company Charter Communications will give free broadband and wifi to K-12 and college student households for 60 days, the company announced Friday.

Community involvement is critical, Cooper said. The state is using all of its resources and bipartisan support to provide testing and health care for the sick, nutrition for low-income households, and child care for health care workers.

Teachers will still be paid, Cooper said.

Teacher assistants and other hourly employees should be given every opportunity to earn money while schools are closed, Stoops said.

“For those hourly workers not employed over the next two weeks, districts should provide ample opportunities for them to make up hours upon their return to school,” he said. 

The General Assembly is working closely with education officials to “provide the flexibility and funding they need to respond to these rapid developments and keep North Carolina communities safe,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in an emailed statement Saturday.

“I hear from medical providers that their biggest need if schools close is child care support for health care professionals, so I ask North Carolinians to pull together and support those families who serve on the front lines of this emergency,” Moore said.