Students could attend in-person classes for portions of days or alternating days when North Carolina’s public schools reopen this fall if there isn’t a substantial reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases statewide.

If cases increase and other COVID-19 metrics worsen, students could start the 2020-21 school year as they spent the last 2 ½ months of the prior school year – with school buildings closed and all classes taught remotely.

These are two of three possible scenarios described in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, prepared by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and approved June 11 by the State Board of Education.

The third scenario is to reopen school buildings with all students on the same schedule and require minimum (six feet) social distancing. This would be implemented if statewide COVID-19 metrics stabilize and/or move in a positive direction.

• Plan A is the scenario if COVID-19 metrics improve and stabilize. In addition to social distancing, it would include daily symptom screening and temperature checks of all students, staff and visitors who enter schools and buses. 

• Plan B is the scenario with only part of a school’s students on campus or on buses at a given time. It calls for moderate social distancing and limiting building and school buses to 50% of capacity.

• Plan C calls for having all students engaged in remote learning. Requirements listed in the toolkit wouldn’t apply since students and staff wouldn’t be in groups on school grounds.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the State Board of Education, cast the lone vote against DPI’s operational guidelines for reopening schools in 2020-21. Forest said school districts shouldn’t have to reopen under the same plan because the level of the coronavirus threat differs across the state.

Although the state board approved the DPI guidance, it instructed DPI staff to come back in July with any policy changes needed then for schools to reopen on Aug. 17 as scheduled.

School districts may choose to implement a more restrictive plan but may not implement a less restrictive plan than established by state health and education leaders.

Local school officials expect to receive word in early July on which of the three scenarios school systems will open with, said Wilkes School Superontendnet Mark Byrd during a Wilkes Economic Development Corp. board meeting Friday. “I expect the return to school being different from anything any of us have ever been familiar with,” added Byrd.

Baseline practices

The “toolkit” approved by the state board includes a comprehensive set of baseline health practices that public schools should follow to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19. It posits that social or physical distancing is a key tool in decreasing the spread of COVID-19 by keeping space between people outside of the home.

Schools are required to mark six feet of spacing on floors of restrooms and locker rooms to indicate proper social distancing; limit nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups or organizations; have staff discourage congregating, not use self-service food in cafeterias,

Schools must review current plans for accommodating students with special healthcare needs and update these plans as needed to decrease risks of exposure to COVID-19. They must also create a process for students, families and staff to self-identify as high risk for severe illness and have plans to address requests for alternative learning arrangements.

Among other things, the plans call for schools to: 

• provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (e.g., soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for safe use by staff and older children, paper towels and tissues);

• teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and/or the safe use of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol by staff and older children;

• supervise use of hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) by students and provide hand sanitizer at every building entrance and exit, cafeterias and every classroom;

• establish a schedule for and perform ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19, and increase frequency of disinfection during high-density times and disinfect all shared objects between use;

• limit sharing of personal items and supplies such as writing utensils and keep students’ personal items separate and in individually labeled lockers or other containers;

• limit use of classroom materials to small groups and disinfect between uses or provide adequate supplies to assign for individual student use;

• place physical barriers such as plexiglass for protection at reception desks and similar areas;

• keep students and teachers in small groups as much as possible;

• post directional signage in hallways.

Cloth face coverings

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recommended but isn’t requiring cloth face coverings. They aren’t included in the state board’s plans, but state officials said individual school districts could require them.

Schools are required to share guidance and information with staff, students and families on the proper use, wearing, removal and cleaning of cloth face coverings, such as guidance developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s strongly recommended that schools teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings for students and staff on buses or other school transportation and on school grounds.

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