COVID-19: Some NC school districts suspend in-person classes

Eufemia Didonato

Some North Carolina school systems are suspending in-person classes and returning to virtual instruction due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The Johnston County and Charlotte Mecklenburg school systems, which are among the largest in the state, both voted Tuesday to switch to remote learning because of the holiday […]

Some North Carolina school systems are suspending in-person classes and returning to virtual instruction due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The Johnston County and Charlotte Mecklenburg school systems, which are among the largest in the state, both voted Tuesday to switch to remote learning because of the holiday coronavirus spike. Other school districts, including Granville and Hoke counties, are also putting students on online classes for the next month.

“The Thanksgiving spike is real,” Johnston County Superintendent Eric Bracy said Tuesday. “I think we’ve rocketed up our numbers since then. Also, I think the Christmas spike could be greater than the Thanksgiving spike because people travel or gather around more people as they did during the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Johnston County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg will both use remote learning, called Plan C, from Dec. 14 to Jan 15. But PreK and some special-ed students in CMS will continue to receive in-person classes.

CMS is the state’s second-largest district, and Johnston is the state’s seventh-largest district.

Granville County will switch to Plan C on Dec. 16 and could resume in-person classes on Jan. 25. Hoke County, which is about 90 miles south of Raleigh, will be on Plan C from Thursday to at least Jan. 8.

Among Triangle districts, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham and Orange counties are only offering online classes into January. Wake and Chatham counties are offering some in-person instruction to students.

High school students still need to come on campus to take required state final exams. The state has told school districts that the exams must be taken in person.

COVID cases spike since Thanksgiving

The majority of North Carolina school districts opened the school year in August with only online classes due to COVID-19. But by the end of November, 59% of the state’s public school students were getting at least limited in-person instruction.

Jayden Williams, a kindergartener at Pine Level Elementary School, leaves campus at the end of the school day on Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in Pine Level, N.C. This is the second full day for 50 students who have retuned to the classroom for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert Willett [email protected]

But COVID-19 cases have soared in recent weeks, hitting record numbers of more than 6,000 new cases a day. The spike caused Gov. Roy Cooper to announce a new statewide curfew that will go into effect Friday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. that encourages people to stay at home.

More than 80% of North Carolina’s 100 counties are in the orange and red categories of the statewide county alert system that gives an indication of community spread.

There are now 48 counties that are identified as red, or with critical community spread. That’s more than double from the 20 red counties identified Nov. 23, before the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We’ve been blessed since Sept. 28th to have kids face-to-face in our buildings receiving good instruction,” Bracy told the Johnston County school board. “Today we went to the status of a red county. That’s taken us to another level.”

According to the school district’s dashboard, there are 46 active COVID-19 cases among Johnston County students with 1,192 students under quarantine. There are 34 active COVID-19 cases among district staff with 252 employees under quarantine.

Bracy said the number of staff under quarantine will only continue to increase, making it harder to operate schools.

The Johnston County school board voted 5-2 to suspend in-person classes. Dissenters, including board member Ronald Johnson, argued that it’s a hardship for some families to be learning from home.

“If you’re a student or family and you want to be in school and you’re a teacher and you want to teach and you want to be in school, I believe that you have that right and who am I to tell you that you don’t if that’s your choice.” Johnson said.

Wake sticking with in-person classes

The North Carolina Association of Educators has been lobbying school districts to stay with remote learning during the pandemic. NCAE president Tamika Walker Kelly urged members on Tuesday to post their “wins” on Facebook.

Wake NCAE has been lobbying the Wake County school system, the state’s largest district, to return to only online classes.

But Wake school board chairman Keith Sutton said Wednesday there’s “no discussion to make any change at this time.” He said that Wake will continue to monitor the situation and will make changes if needed.

Currently, Wake’s PreK-3 student and K-12 special-education regional program students are getting daily in-person instruction. Students in fourth- through eighth-grades are getting a mix of in-person and online classes.

High school students are getting only online courses.

Sutton pointed Wednesday to how Wake is not in the list of red counties on the state’s COVID-19 alert system.

Wake is an orange county, meaning there’s “substantial community spread.” Both Granville and Mecklenburg counties, which are switching to online classes, are also listed as orange counties.

Sutton also said the number of COVID-19 cases in the school district is relatively low given its size, with more than 157,000 students and 19,000 employees. According to Wake’s latest update, there have been 219 confirmed cases among students and staff since Oct. 26, when students first began returning for in-person classes.

Wake reported 68 new COVID-19 cases last week, part of a trend where the number has risen weekly. Unlike Johnston County, which updates its COVID-19 figures daily, Wake County does it weekly on Thursdays.

“We’re still doing a pretty good job of mitigating spread,” Sutton said Wednesday.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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