Students to split time between physical classrooms and remote lessons; businesses to be closed 3 more weeks.

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that North Carolina students may split time next school year between physical classrooms and remote lessons, but that some schools can operate completely remotely if officials feel it’s necessary to protect their students and teachers from the coronavirus.

Further, Cooper said the next phase of reopening businesses will be postponed again in order to hold down the spread of COVID-19. The new reopening date for places like gyms, bars, bowling alleys and skating rinks is Aug. 7. It had been this coming Friday.

These businesses have been clamoring to reopen. Some have sued to try to make this happen and the legislature has passed several bills to help them. But Cooper vetoed those measures.

For the schools, Cooper chose the middle level of three proposed reopening plans — Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C — for the state’s 1.4 million public school students to resume lessons on Aug. 17.

“It's a measured, balanced approach that will allow children to attend but provide important safety protocols like fewer children in the classroom, social distancing, face coverings, cleaning, and more,” Cooper said.

Under Plan B guidelines, students will rotate through in-person instruction for portions of the day, week, or month. Any district or charter school can opt to exclusively teach remotely, but no public school can defy the state’s guidelines and bring back full classes.

At school, students and staff will be expected to maintain 6 feet of social distancing. On buses, students will be kept one to a seat. Everyone entering a school or boarding a bus will be screened for symptoms and have their temperature checked.

Cooper said every student and teacher, from the youngest to oldest grades, will be required to wear face coverings. The state will provide five reusable face coverings for students and staff. Other safety precautions include one-way hallways, limiting outside visitors, and suspending large-group activities.

Cooper noted his reopening decision could shift before mid-August if COVID-19 case increases necessitate all public schools move to remote teaching.

“We know schools will look a lot different this year," Cooper said. "They have to in order to be safe and effective.”

A law enacted this year required schools to have in-person instruction for the first week of school. Cooper said he has an opinion from the state Attorney General Office that his reopening plan is allowed.

Districts set plans

Over the past few weeks, multiple districts have finalized and publicized their Plan B reopenings, sending out surveys to gauge community preferences and laying out which grades can physically attend classes and when.

For example, New Hanover County Schools would divide students into three groups, with one week of in-person instruction followed by two weeks of online learning. Cumberland County Schools is offering a similar weekly alternating schedule. Other districts, like Buncombe County Schools, endorsed plans to bring younger students back on a rotating basis while high school students continue remote learning.

Along with Plan B specifics, many districts are giving families the option to keep their children home and continue their teachers’ lessons remotely or enroll in virtual academies designed specifically for distance learning.

Balancing risks

How schools would reopen during COVID-19 has been highly controversial.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican candidate for governor, has previously criticized the Democratic governor’s school decisions. In a June 11 statement, Forest said, “Our schools should be full of students, not fear.”

In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended K-12 policies should, “start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” This AAP statement, often cited by supporters of more aggressive reopenings, mentioned in-person instruction can help alleviate social isolation, learning gaps, and depression among children.

Other childhood health experts acknowledged both the benefits and the inevitabilities of resuming in-person instruction this fall.

“As schools reopen with its many benefits for children and families, we do know that more children will get exposed to the virus because there will be children, teachers, or staff who unknowingly come infected with COVID-19 to school,” said Dr. Charlene Wong, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke School of Medicine.

Wong, who spoke at a reopening policy panel Tuesday just hours before Cooper’s announcement, favored differentiating reopening policies based on student age, pointing out high school students are more developmentally equipped for remote learning than elementary students. She also admitted experts, officials, and educators don’t know the optimal path forward for reopening schools.

“We are still not sure what the best way to open the different schools: elementary, middle, high school. Is it one week on, two weeks off? Two days in-person, with cohorts?” Wong said. “This is going to be an opportunity for us to learn and to course-correct as we go because we're probably not going to get it all right out of the gate.”

By picking Plan B, Cooper left parents with a decision: rotate through physical classes or stay home and reduce the virus risk. Sherri Banks, whose son Sawyer, 5, will be starting kindergarten next month in Buncombe County Schools, knows which way she’s leaning. Sawyer has an immune disorder and Banks doesn’t wish to take any chances.

“I'm hoping for more of the virtual but that does present a lot of challenges because my husband and I both work full-time jobs,” she said. “But honestly, I'm just a little scared to send him to school."

Banks said she’s leaning towards Sawyer beginning kindergarten remotely for the fall semester before attending physical classes in early 2021 if there’s a COVID-19 vaccine.

Reporter Brian Gordon can be reached at or on Twitter @briansamuel92