Outgoing N.C. Health Secretary Mandy Cohen told lawmakers recently that schools could still close in the event of a COVID infection surge this winter. Cohen delivered this news as teachers and students scramble to wrap this semester and kids try to catch up from the year of remote and missed school.

In comments before the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations’ Subcommittee on Use and Distribution of Federal COVID Funding, officials from Gov. Roy Cooper’s State COVID Response Team, including Cohen, took questions on the state’s seemingly perpetual state of emergency, and shutdowns for students and small businesses.

“This pandemic has been a roller coaster, things have changed so quickly over a period of time for the pandemic,” Cohen said at the opening of her 15-minute update. “If we are going to take a retrospective, we have to look at what we knew at the time that we knew it.”

Cohen went on to walk lawmakers through the earliest months of the pandemic, dating back to January 2020, explaining the initial uncertainty about how the virus would progress.

“The data we were getting was incredibly manual, fax machines, literally,” she said, describing the initial numbers coming from other states and federal health officials on the virus spread and symptoms.

“Everyone got overwhelmed by this initially, and there was a very much an ‘every state for themselves’ mentality,” she added.

Lawmakers were less interested in her look back, than the plan forward.

Their frustration was evident over ambiguous timelines for ending the state of emergency, the labor shortage that stems partly from increased COVID unemployment benefits, and the continued instability for N.C. school students, two years after the onset of the pandemic. However, their questions received few specifics from Cooper’s team on setting benchmarks.

“It seems like the goal posts are always moving,” Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, said to Cohen. “Can you provide a specific data-driven milestone that will significantly end the pandemic?”

“There’s no one single metric we can look at,” responded Cohen. “It’s not just cases, not just deaths, it’s really a package of different kinds of cases that we need to look at. Certainly, it is about how much virus is here in North Carolina, that really drives a lot of this.”

A parent himself, Johnson said in committee that N.C. DHHS has threatened Union County Schools with legal action for making masks optional and limiting the use of quarantine for healthy students, “effectively deputized school staff to be healthcare providers.”

“Is the toolkit a recommendation, a law, or simply a suggestion?” he asked.

She did not directly answer his comments on the impact to students or her agency’s threats of legal action. Instead, Cohen told the legislative committee that the StrongSchoolsNC: Public Health Toolkit (K-12) advises that students not be quarantined unless they were unmasked or unvaccinated and exposed to someone within six feet for more than 15 minutes.

But according to parents, that message has not reached the schools. Administrators across the state are continuing to send students home for extended periods after an exposure, even if they were masked, vaccinated, and without symptoms.

They say continued restrictions’ impact on academics and morale is devastating for many students, particularly those with learning challenges. In most schools, online classes are not available to students who did not choose a remote option at the beginning of the year. If sent home now for a suspected exposure, they spend a week or more trying to catch up with what help their teachers can provide. The instability of attendance due to the guidelines is weighing on teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

“We are just trying to get through the year,” said one Wake County teacher who did not want to be identified publicly. “The stress level from all this uncertainty is off the charts.”

The hearing comes on the heels of several studies that found North Carolina’s public school students have fallen behind dramatically during the shutdowns, and there is growing support among parents for more school options. For the 2021-2020 school year, just 24%of the sixth graders passed the end-of-grade reading exam, and results were similar in other grades and subjects.

In a December poll from Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C., when asked if they could send their child to the best school, with no concern about cost or distance, 38% of respondents said they would choose a traditional public school; 11% would choose a charter school; 11% a nonreligious private school; 22% a religious private school, while 9% would choose a home school.

“Yesterday’s hearing was informative and troubling,” Sen. Chuck Edwards, co-chair of the subcommittee said in a statement released by Senate leadership. “We heard a lot of good information about our state’s continued recovery from the pandemic, but I’m concerned about how we move forward from the pandemic. There is no clear, comprehensive ‘off-ramp,’ and the Cooper administration refuses to acknowledge that we are no longer in a state of emergency.”

Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Sanders and Lee Lilley, director of North Carolina Pandemic Recovery, also testified and, according to some lawmakers, did not give the committee a clear sense of the plan for navigating out of the pandemic restrictions. When pressed on why initially some businesses were forced to close while others were allowed to stay open, called “essential” and “non-essential,” Lilley said that the state and the COVID response officials were following federal guidelines.

Those “essential and non-essential” guidelines were established by the federal Department of Homeland Security with input from the CDC in 2020, but their report made clear that each state has the authority to make its own decisions.

“We recognize that State, local, tribal, and territorial governments are ultimately in charge of implementing and executing response activities in communities under their jurisdiction, while the federal government is in a supporting role,” the federal guidance read in the August 2020 advisory. “Accordingly, this list is advisory in nature. It is not, nor should it be considered to be, a federal directive or standard in and of itself.”

During her testimony, Sanders disputed the assertion offered by lawmakers that extended unemployment benefits have contributed to the current labor shortage, hitting everything from small retailers to law enforcement. Sanders said that she believes the labor shortage was instead caused by pre-pandemic low birth rates, low immigration rates, and retirements.

“Every state, including North Carolina, has now fully reopened, and 87% of the state job loss in spring of 2020 has been recovered,” she said. “However, the retirement of baby boomers and continuing pandemic-related factors may be continuing to contribute to the tight labor market.”

More than double the number of people retired during the pandemic shutdowns than retire in a typical year. The retirement rate in 2019 was about 1.5 million people, but in 2020, 3.2 million people decided to retire. In polls of recent retirees, they cited COVID, business closures, and the move to remote work as the reason.

As Christmas approaches, Cohen also warned lawmakers of the emergence of the omicron variant, saying that there is not enough known about it yet to ease off of government restrictions.

“I shared a holiday celebration with my extended family,” she said. “I think it is safe to do those things, but it does mean risk. There is risk ahead and I think we need to be on guard for it.”

Early reports from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control on the variant indicate that it is less severe than others. Lawmakers say that the damage to the public, the economy, and students, is certain.

“There is so much more to being healthy than just the absence of COVID – specifically the psychological, behavioral, and learning loss issues that our students are experiencing now,” said Johnson.