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Back to school?

Local public school officials are weighing in on Governor Roy Cooper’s announcement this week that K-5 students can return to the classroom early next month.

Cooper said that after several weeks of stable COVID-19 trends and continued low virus spread in school settings, public school districts and charter schools can choose to implement Plan A for elementary schools (grades K-5) effective Oct. 5.

Plan A continues to include important safety measures like face coverings for all students, teachers and staff, social distancing, and symptom screening, but does not require schools to reduce the number of children in the classroom.

All public schools in the Roanoke-Chowan area, as did many across the state, are currently operating under Plan C (remote learning).

School Superintendents in Bertie, Gates, Hertford and Northampton counties implemented Plan C for the first nine weeks of the current academic year.

Even though Gov. Cooper’s announcement will allow elementary schools to return to full-time in-person instruction on Oct. 5, Northampton County has not yet made plans to bring their youngest students back.

“For now, we will remain on Plan C and continue virtual learning,” Northampton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Pamela Chamblee told the News Herald on Friday.

She said bringing students back to the classroom as soon as it’s reasonably safe is a goal the district aspires to.

“I am confident that decisions for Northampton County Schools will be made with great care given to how our local metrics are trending as we remain in contact with our local health department,” she continued.

The Northampton Board of Education is scheduled to meet for a retreat on Oct. 6 to examine the most recent data and science to make a decision. Chamblee emphasized that decision will be one that protects students and staff and also ensures the implementation of important safety measures.

Northampton’s COVID-19 numbers appear to be slowing down as compared to the spring and early summer months. However, there are still over 50 active cases as of this week. Seventeen people have died from the virus in the county since the outbreak began in March.

Hertford County Superintendent Dr. William T. Wright Jr. stressed that while he and his staff would welcome students back, recent data shows the county’s COVID-19 cases are among the highest in the state per capita. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has flagged Hertford County for additional testing (see story on page 5B of today’s edition).

“Our whole thing is safety first and I have some concerns about returning to face to face instruction,” Wright told the News-Herald on Friday.

“My role is public service; it would be crazy for me to recommend something that I believe isn’t the best decision for the public, which includes our students and our staff. It goes against what I believe in,” he added.

Still, the decision to allow Hertford County’s K-5 students back into the classroom next month is in the hands of the county’s Board of Education. They have a meeting scheduled for Sept. 28.

“I’ll make a recommendation at that time based on what I believe is the best for our students and staff,” Dr. Wright stated.

He added that if the school board opts to re-open classes for elementary school students, parents will be given an option to allow their children to remain on the current remote learning (at home) platform.

Bertie Schools Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood said the district there is operating in Plan C for the first nine weeks for all grade levels.

“Currently, there is not a plan to change that,” he said. “However, a recommendation will be made by the Bertie School Board during its meeting on Oct. 13 about which plan the district will operate for the second nine weeks.

“With any face to face plan, we will provide a virtual option for any parent who wishes for their child to remain in a remote learning environment,” Dr. Smallwood added.

Bertie’s initial nine weeks of school ends for students on Oct. 22.

Cooper said his decision to allow face-to-face instruction for elementary school-age children is because, “most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers.

“North Carolinians are doing the hard work to improve our numbers and trends,” the Governor said in a press release sent Thursday. “Many people are wearing masks, keeping social distance and being careful to protect others as well as themselves. We have shown that listening to the science works. And I’m proud of our resolve.”

As the Governor announced in July, every district will continue to have flexibility to select Plan A, B or C based on their unique needs. In addition, districts should still provide an option for families to select all remote learning for their students.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, shared an update on North Carolina’s data trends. She explained that North Carolina has seen a sustained leveling or decrease of key metrics.

“Our trends show that we are on the right track. It’s up to all of us to protect our progress. Our individual actions like those 3 Ws will help keep our school doors open,” said Dr. Cohen.

She also explained that as schools have opened, the current science shows that younger children are less likely to become infected, have symptoms, experience severe disease or spread the virus.

“It’s great news today that we are a step closer to providing the option of in-person learning to families who want their children to return to school,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. “While the Governor, the State Board of Education, and I have our differences, I join with them today to encourage local school board members to take advantage of this change and open all schools safely. I thank the many parents and teachers across North Carolina who have been vocal advocates on this important issue.”

“For the past six months, superintendents, principals, teachers and local BOE have worked diligently to care for the safety of our students and staff while educating our children. While we are anxious to return all students, we know that teachers, principals, and students need a gradual transition over the next three months. I ask our parents to remain patient, knowing that we are moving as quickly as is safely possible. And I ask our teachers to continue to assist our students by supporting this deliberate, thoughtful transition,” said Eric Davis, Chairman of the State Board of Education.

(R-C News-Herald Editor Cal Bryant contributed to this story.)