People are scratching their heads over the state’s health guidance about how schools can safely reopen. 

The upcoming school year won’t be normal, and COVID-19 is to blame, state officials have said. Schools will have to balance teaching students with curbing the spread of the virus. To prepare for the 2020-21 school year, state agencies have shared the safety precautions school districts must take to protect students and staff. 

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday, June 8, published the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12). The Department for Public Instruction on  Thursday talked about how schools could operate under the various health plans.

The bulky plan consists of more than 120 pages of complex rules and guidelines, all of which are probably impossible to enact. Terry Stoops calls them comically impractical.

“Imagine the process of screening the 3,500 students that attend Myers Park High School in Mecklenburg County every school day, while cleaning and sanitizing the thermometer ‘using manufacturer’s instructions between each use’,” said Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“Teachers will spend more time on surveillance and sanitation than instruction under these requirements.”

All 115 N.C. school districts must create three plans using COVID-19 metrics. Plan A is the least restrictive, requiring minimal social distancing of students and staff. Plan B requires more stringent social distancing and fewer people in the school building. Under Plan C, schools would use only remote learning.

“We will only implement Plans A or B to reopen schools as a state if we are ready. If our metrics change, our plan will change,” Kelly Haight Conner, health department communications, says in an email to Carolina Journal.

State officials will decide by July 1, using COVID-19 data, which plan schools must follow. School districts can decide to employ tighter limits than the state mandates, but they can’t use a less-restrictive plan.

Requirements include enforcing social distancing with floor and seating markers, providing cleaning supplies, regularly disinfecting classrooms, and conducting daily health screenings for all students and staff.

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

If school districts must use Plan B, school attendance could become staggered. Groups of students would alternate attending class or staying home for remote learning.

Young children are unlikely to follow social distancing, Stoops said, as are students with developmental disabilities.

“Given the difficulty of implementing social-distancing plans that adhere to DHHS guidelines, districts will have no choice but to employ full-time remote learning in the fall,” Stoops said.

Some SBE members questioned the feasibility of the requirements and wanted more clarity on metrics state officials are using to make decisions.

“It’s an enormous amount of pressure on our educators in individual classrooms to be responsible for the safety of the students in their classes,” said Amy White, a SBE member, during the meeting.

Teachers will have to watch every student to ensure social distancing and regular hand-washing, White said.

“What happens to the classroom teacher when Johnny says, ‘I can’t find my face mask. Where’s my mask?’ Is it the teacher’s responsibility to provide another one?” White said.

What specific metrics would state officials rely on when picking a plan? Lt. Gov. Dan Forest asked during the board meeting.

The state would use the same metrics as the ones used to ease statewide COVID-19 restrictions, said Susan Perry, chief deputy secretary at the health department.

At the end of the meeting, Forest was the lone “no” vote as the state education board approved the guidance.

Forest said a statewide one-size-fits-all plan made no sense. In a release he issued after the meeting, the lieutenant governor said:

“We must allow families the basic freedom and personal responsibility to decide what’s best for their children, accommodate students and staff who are at high risk, and allow students to learn and parents to work without anxiety and uncertainty. Our schools should be full of students, not fear.”

Having more local data on COVID-19 hotspots and what causes them would make it easier to argue for varying regional school reopening plans, said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes.

“The circumstance in Durham County is very different than the situation that is in Cherokee County,” Elmore said. 

The board will return in July to discuss any needed policy changes.