53% of NC students back to online classes due to COVID spike

The post-holiday COVID-19 spike has led to a majority of North Carolina public school students returning to receiving only online classes instead of in-person instruction.

At least 52 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have reverted to only offering remote instruction, according to a News & Observer review of a school reopening database maintained by the N.C. School Boards Association. Those school districts represent more than 780,000 students, or over 53% of the state’s K-12 public school students.

Those figures don’t include districts which are offering in-person instruction but have some students who are only taking virtual classes.

Supporters of suspending in-person instruction say the safest thing to do is to educate students remotely.

“Can we honestly feel safe and secure and confident about sending our students, our employees back into the building on Jan. 20th as we had planned?” Wake County school board chairman Keith Sutton said Thursday. “Tough. As (board member Monika) Ms. Johnson-Hostler said, if that’s your student, if that’s your mother, if that’s your wife, if that’s your husband, your spouse.”

Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s two largest school districts, both voted Thursday to keep students out of in-person instruction until at least mid-February.

Some districts are scheduled to send students back for in-person classes next week. But Richard Bostic, who keeps track of the database as NCSBA’s assistant director of governmental relations, said Friday that school boards keep calling special meetings.

School closures span state

The list of districts that have paused in-person instruction span the state, from Dare County on the coast to Buncombe County in the west and from Roanoke Rapids in the north to Robeson County in the south.

But Durham Public Schools is the only district in the NCSBA list that has officially decided not to have any in-person classes this school year. The other districts are scheduled to revisit their decisions between now and March.

The situation is moving closer to what it was like in August when more than 70% of the state’s students began the school year with only online classes. By late November, state education officials said 82% of school districts were offering at least some in-person instruction.

Cleary Brewer and other first grade classmates work from spaced tables in their Hunter Elementary School classroom in Raleigh on Monday, October 26, 2020, on the first day back in school for some Wake students. Juli Leonard [email protected]

But as COVID numbers rose after Thanksgiving, several districts decided in December to switch to only remote classes, called Plan C. Several more made the move this month as COVID cases reach record levels.

On Friday, state health officials reported 8,914 new COVID-19 cases. It’s the seventh highest daily increase of the pandemic.

“We are now at levels in our community that are unprecedented,” Sutton said Thursday. “We have not seen this level of spread. We have not seen this number of cases. We have not seen this number of hospitalizations.”

Calls for in-person instruction

But the decision to stick with virtual learning has been criticized by some parents and by state Republican lawmakers who say that it’s hurting the education of students. School districts across the state are reporting lower grades and higher absenteeism among students in the virtual environment.

Advocates for school reopening point to a study done by the ABC Science Collaborative that says schools can safely reopen if they follow proper prevention measures.

The ABC Science Collaborative, which was formed by Duke University, studied 11 North Carolina school districts and found no cases of child-to-adult transmission of COVID and only 32 cases of secondary transmission.

“The education bureaucracy is burying its head in the sand by withholding from children their Constitutional right to a sound, basic education,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in a news release Thursday.

“They’re ignoring the mountain of evidence and pleas from objective public health observers, educators, and parents that show continued school closures are a disaster, and some children may never recover.”

But Wake school board member Christine Kushner noted Thursday that the ABC study was done “when community incidence (of COVID-19) was down.” The study is based on data from August through October.

“The community spread is putting our schools at risk,” Kushner added. “Even though our schools are not spreading COVID in the community, the community spread is putting our staff, our students, our families at risk.”

NCAE urges Cooper to take action

The North Carolina Association of Educators asked Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to “take immediate and significant executive action to again curb community spread of this virus until such time that infection rates are again under control,” in a letter sent Wednesday.

The letter doesn’t recommend any specific steps though.

In Wake County, the local NCAE chapter urged the school board not to resume
in-person instruction until either school employees are vaccinated for COVID-19 or the county’s two-week rolling average for positive cases drops below 5%.

School board members across the state have been calling for a faster distribution of the vaccine so that teachers and other school employees can be inoculated.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of NCAE, said she wouldn’t be surprised if more districts in the next few weeks switch to Plan C. But she said more districts may resume in-person instruction by the spring as vaccine supplies increase and the spread of the virus hopefully slows down.

“It is our continued belief that school safety is community safety because if we want to make sure the teachers and students in the community are safe, it’s important that we have measures in place,” Walker Kelly said in an interview Friday.

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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.