News: CJ Exclusives

Health screenings, social distancing on the school calendar for fall 2020

Stock photo
Stock photo

Every North Carolina student, from kindergarteners to post-graduates, will have new health and safety rules to follow this fall. 

COVID-19 has complicated the traditional school day for all students, teachers, and faculty. Schools and universities are finalizing plans to provide an education with the infectious disease in mind. The fall reopening plans are as far-reaching as they are complicated. 

K-12 public schools 

For K-12 public schools, reopening proposals are “comically impractical,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. 

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released health and operational guidance for public schools to follow. 

School districts were required to develop three plans using COVID-19 metrics. Plan A was the least restrictive, requiring minimal social distancing of students and staff. Plan B required more stringent social distancing and fewer people in the school building. Under Plan C, schools could use only remote learning. 

State officials were supposed to announce on July 1 which plan schools will follow, but Gov. Roy Cooper postponed the announcement. The decision was finally made weeks later on July 14 when Cooper announced schools could either opt for full-time remote learning or a hybrid between remote learning and in-person instruction.

Plan A wasn’t an option.

A growing number of school districts are starting the school year with Plan C. As of July 24, at least 31 of the state’s 115 school districts have voted for full-time remote learning, including Wake County Public School System, Guilford County Schools, and Orange County School District. 

Requirements under Plan B range from placing floor and seat markers to indicate social distancing to regularly cleaning classrooms with hospital-grade disinfectant. Schools must conduct daily health screenings for all students and staff. 

Though not required, students, teachers, and staff are strongly encouraged to wear masks. 

School districts using Plan B are staggering school attendance. Groups of students will alternate between physical attendance and remote learning. 

Operating at 50% capacity would be a challenge, Cathy Moore, Wake County Public Schools superintendent, said during a June webinar on reopening plans. 

It’ll cost more money, too, Moore said. On July 21, the district announced the school year would start with only distance learning. Students may return to class in person within a few weeks, starting with kids in the lower grades.

In response, Wake County parents have voted with their feet. Roughly 47% of the district’s 162,000 students enrolled in the county’s Virtual Academy, which offers a full-time online curriculum. Had the governor allowed more flexibility, the school district might have wound up with enough space to let students attend full time in person with proper social distancing.

Fall sports remain in limbo. Some private high schools plan to hold football games and some other events. But in public schools, staggered class days make team practices hard to put together.

The N.C. High School Athletics Association has considered postponing fall sports until spring 2021.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who’s running against Cooper, has criticized the state’s health and operations guidance. When the State Board of Education voted to approve the guidance, Forest gave the lone no vote. 

The state must allow families the freedom and responsibility to decide what’s best for their children while also accommodating students and staff at high risk of contracting COVID-19, Forest said in a news release. 

“Our schools should be full of students, not fear,” Forest said.

Colleges and universities

Like K-12 schools, college campuses will look different in the fall — but public universities will have more flexibility when setting rules. 

University of North Carolina System campuses began in April by letting individual schools decide how to reopen.

“As examples, some institutions might consider staggered or shortened academic calendars, while others may take action to reduce student density in campus housing and classrooms,” Interim System President Bill Roper said April 29.  

Most UNC schools will start classes later than usual. Fall break has been canceled so that classes can wrap before Thanksgiving. 

Several universities have canceled study-abroad programs. Some classes will blend online learning with in-person instruction, while others will go remote. 

Face masks and hand-sanitizer stations will be a familiar sight. Classrooms will be reconfigured to space students, and some campuses will limit access to labs and academic centers. 

For some schools, fewer students will live in the residence halls. N.C. State University is converting some double rooms to singles for students with pre-existing health conditions. N.C. Central University will provide alternative living arrangements to isolate residential students who test positive or were exposed to COVID-19 but are unable to return home. 

Student-athletes will return to campuses but will undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and train in smaller groups. Outbreaks in July at UNC Chapel Hill and East Carolina University forced both schools to stop voluntary football workouts for several days. It’s unclear if colleges will play fall sports, and if so, how many fans will be able to attend games.

The UNC Board of Governors voted on July 23 to keep tuition and fees the same, no matter what happens with COVID-19. Universities aren’t permitted to give students refunds even if classes go online like they did over spring. 

“Today, our Board of Governors made it very clear tuition and fees for the instruction that is given with all the support of the campuses would not be prorated, and the tuition and fees would remain in effect for this entire school calendar year,” BOG Chair Randy Ramsey said during a news conference.

Private universities must deal with COVID-19 restrictions, too. Duke University announced Sunday, July 26, it would allow only freshmen and sophomores to live in campus housing during the fall semester. Exceptions were given for upperclassmen who have “personal or academic circumstances that require them to remain on campus,” ABC-11 reported.

Upperclassmen also will take all courses online. They’ll have access to libraries and labs if needed to satisfy a class assignment. But they won’t be able to visit dorms, dining halls, or other social facilities.

Duke officials said they’ll decide about the spring 2021 term later.

Meantime, Wake Technical Community College and other N.C. community colleges have waived their fees. 

“We won’t be providing some of the things you should expect for most types of semesters — events and activities on campus that would be the norm during a normal time,” Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech, said in a video sent to students.

Community colleges don’t have students staying on campus, so they won’t have to worry about residence halls. Like the UNC system, community college presidents have the leeway to develop plans that best fit their needs. 

When students return to community colleges this fall, they’ll find hand-sanitizer stations and social-distancing markers dotting the campuses. Many classes and student services will go online. Some schools will install plexiglass and require masks in places where social distancing isn’t possible.