CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper is strongly urging that all schools provide in-person learning for students.
Cooper made that announcement in a news briefing Tuesday afternoon.
"It’s important schools follow the safety protocols laid out by North Carolina health officials," Cooper said. "That guidance reinforces in-person learning while maintaining strong public health measures."
Cooper said students should still have the option of remote learning this school if that is best for them.
"And teachers who are at risk should be providing that remote instruction," Cooper said. "But students who are ready to return to the classrooms should have that chance."
The governor's announcement comes days after three Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association about how safe in-person learning could be possible during the pandemic.
The report considered various studies into school response to the virus from across the nation and around the world. In part, the authors cited research on 11 North Carolina school districts and how they were able to conduct in-person instruction this past fall with minimal transmission inside schools.
That article in Pediatrics stated that, with 90,000 students and staff among the 11 districts, there were 805 coronavirus cases over the course of nine weeks. However, only 32 of those cases were transmissions from inside the school, meaning 96% of cases came from outside the classroom, from the community.
Alexander, Ashe, Gaston, and Iredell-Statesville Schools are listed as participants in that research.
Researchers concluded masking was a big factor in reducing viral spread. They said most cases of transmission within a school happened during lapses in masking protocols, writing that these were sometimes situations when students removed masks to eat or special needs students had a hard time keeping their masks on.
They stated it drove home the importance of physical distancing, not crowding classrooms, and increasing ventilation in classrooms.
The CDC report also noted examples of situations in other states and countries that increased spread of the virus.
"COVID-19 outbreaks among U.S. high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk," the report stated.
North Carolina's Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said younger children are less likely to get and spread COVID-19 and most have mild symptoms if they do get it.
“Even with the thousands of students and teachers attending school in-person across the state, we have seen few COVID-19 clusters in our public schools,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D. “Our Department will continue to serve our school communities, offering resources and support so we can keep our school doors open.”
Increasing evidence suggests that, with prevention measures in place, there are low rates of COVID-19 transmission in primary and secondary school settings even with high rates of community transmission.
“Learning loss resulting from COVID has the potential to be a generational hurdle, but the data we have seen shows us that schools can reopen safely if they adhere to COVID prevention policies,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said. “For many schools, the logistics of returning to in-person instruction five days per week will be a challenge, but this is absolutely a challenge we must face head-on so that all students have a chance to fulfill their potential. With strong prevention measures in place and the scientific research to back them, now is the time to act. North Carolina’s students cannot lose any more time.”
Governor Cooper and state health and education officials have made protecting the health and safety of students and educators the top priority since the beginning of the pandemic, moving to fully remote learning last spring and giving local school districts the flexibility to gradually return to the classroom in September.
According to data provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, over 99% of available vaccine first doses have been administered statewide. However, the state has administered just 41% of second doses.
The numbers are even worse at long-term care facilities, where just 10% of second doses have been given to patients.
N.C. Association of Educators released the following statement regarding the governor’s decision to resume in-person learning:
“We, as NCAE, have said since the start of this pandemic that educators are eager to return to in-person instruction when it can be done safely. However, without the widespread vaccination of educators and strictly enforced social distancing, it is impossible for many schools to open safely, and for the schools that have been open, they need help,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “If Governor Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do. In the meantime, we encourage local school boards to continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions. Particularly in light of the emerging and increasingly virulent strains of COVID, it is more critical than ever to have a flexible approach that can be adapted to whatever situation next emerges.”
Gov. Cooper said teachers are in the group of essential workers and are up next for vaccinations.
"They are up next in the priority," Cooper said. "The team is going to continue to work to get the vaccine out."
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for DHHS, said the state has surpassed 1 million vaccinations. In a statement, Cohen thanked the front-line workers who have put in countless hours to vaccinate patients.
“I am so grateful to our vaccine partners across the state who continue working in innovative ways to make sure North Carolinians have a spot to take their shot. It is incumbent on all of us to use the limited supply of vaccine we have as quickly and equitably as possible, finding new ways to meet people where they are,” said Cohen.
Michelle Riese, a member of the state’s vaccine advisory committee, said one reason it takes time to administer the second dose is that allocations were based on a facilities’ capacity, not the actual number of people who live there.
“If a facility has room for 100 people to live there and there’s only 80 there right now, they still got an allocation based on the 100 people instead of the 80 people,” Ries said.
As for statewide metrics, North Carolina's numbers continue to move in the right direction. DHHS reported 3,776 new cases Monday. That's significantly lower than North Carolina's single-day peak of 11,581 cases on Jan. 9. Hospitalizations also trend downward after the post-holiday spike. As of Monday afternoon, 2,781 people are hospitalized statewide with COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County's modified health directive takes effect Tuesday. Under the directive, Health Director Gibbie Harris is asking people to stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily and wear masks in public, following Gov. Cooper's stay-home order. Harris also said she is in favor of schools resuming in-person learning, citing a CDC report that found zero student-to-teacher transmissions of the virus during a nine-week study of 11 North Carolina school districts with at least 90,000 students.