COVID-19 Education Government

State leaders released health guidelines Monday for K-12 schools in anticipation of sending children back to in-person instruction.

Gov. Roy Cooper and others unveiled a list of requirements and recommendations once schools are allowed to reopen under one of three plans.

The degree to which they reopen depends on the state’s data behind the COVID-19 pandemic, including new infections, contact tracing capabilities, hospitalizations and other metrics.

Cooper said the health guidance, which all K-12 schools are expected to review and follow, means large changes even under a best-case scenario. In a worst-case scenario, students will remain at home. In a middle-ground plan, schools must spread students and staff out in an effort to achieve social distancing.

“We are concerned a number of our virus metrics are trending upward,” Cooper said. “Opening school buildings on time could be affected. If we are careless now … we don’t just risk our health, we risk the ability to get children back in classrooms.”

The guidance, published Monday, said schools are required to screen anyone entering a school building for symptoms of COVID-19. People with symptoms must stay home for two weeks, and those who have been in contact with anyone testing positive must sequester themselves.

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Numbers going the wrong way as school planning proceeds

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state’s health metrics are moving in the wrong direction. Hospitalizations are up, as is the percentage of positive tests. North Carolina’s death toll surpassed 1,000 cases Monday, with 1,006 official deaths from the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

And 739 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to 77% of hospitals reporting — the highest number to date.

“I am concerned,” Cohen said.

Over the weekend, the state had its largest jump in positive COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The numbers were so stark that Cohen received a call from Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She did not detail what they discussed.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said the state will support districts no matter which way school is conducted this fall.

He said there will be “improved learning opportunities for students outside of the classroom if, heaven forbid, we have another spike” in coronavirus cases.

In a best-case scenario, schools will be able to reopen “assuming state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or move in a positive direction,” the guidance states.

Schools are required to place markings 6 feet apart on floors to remind students and staff to stand 6 feet apart in lines, locker rooms, bathrooms and reception areas. They must also limit nonessential visitors and discourage students from congregating.

If state metrics for the new coronavirus get worse, occupancy in school buildings will be limited to half of that allowed by fire marshals to ensure people can stay 6 feet apart.

All schools are required to have a separate space to place symptomatic students until they can be sent home to isolate until the sickness passes.

State officials did not say what health metrics trigger each option, and the guidance posted online did not include that information.