All North Carolina public schools to close for two weeks

RALEIGH – All North Carolina public schools will close beginning Monday, March 16th for a minimum of two weeks. The Department of Public Instruction is recommending using Monday as an optional teacher workday to allow access for staff and students to retrieve personal items/resources.

Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement at a briefing today at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh and was joined by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, N.C. Superintendent Mark Johnson, and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis.

“We do not have the luxury of a wait-and-see approach. These are hard decisions but they are necessary so we can learn more about the virus,” Gov. Cooper said. “I am guided by one objective – doing what we must to keep people from getting sick and to make sure that those who do can get excellent care.”

In addition to the announcement of school closures, Gov. Cooper issued an executive order banning the gathering of 100 or more persons. The order does not apply to airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and spaces where people may be in transit. Office environments, restaurants, factories, or retail or grocery stores are also excluded in the order.

Eric Davis said the state board members are working with the districts and higher education institutions to keep as many services open and available as possible. He also said they are working to make sure students who need meals are served and that local schools should work with their public health services on continuity plans for facilities use.

This is the decision no one wanted to see happen, but it is the right decision,” said Supt. Mark Johnson, adding that the Dept. of Public Instruction has been planning ahead and says will continue to meet the needs of students.

Cohen talked about the need to practice “social distancing” both by the healthy and by the sick. She also added that the decision to close schools was a hard one.

The decision to close schools comes on the heels of a conference call on Friday afternoon led by Cooper’s education advisor Geoff Coltrane, Secretary Cohen, DHHS’ Dr. Zack Moore and school officials from across the state. During that call, the advice given was for schools to remain open in line with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

When asked by a reporter what had changed in the guidance on closing schools since yesterday, Cooper said that “increased anxiety” from parents, teachers and superintendents across the state were a factor.

“We need a period of time to assess the threat of COVID-19,” Cooper said, adding that this period of time is “important to figure out where we are.”

“We don’t want to be looking in the rearview mirror and regretting not doing this,” said Cooper.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) says that the General Assembly is prepared to support school districts with flexibility and funding they may need due to the closures.

“While I know this is a decision no one wanted to make, under the circumstances, this is the right thing to do for North Carolina at this time,” Moore said in a statement Saturday.

“I hear from medical providers that their biggest need if schools close is childcare support for healthcare professionals, so I ask North Carolinians to pull together and support those families who serve on the front lines of this emergency,” said Moore. “School systems and students can rest assured the state legislature will work closely with education officials to provide the flexibility and funding they need to respond to these rapid developments and keep North Carolina communities safe.”

Between Friday evening and Saturday morning, the number of cases in North Carolina rose from 15 to 23. The number of counties where cases are present also rose from seven to 12.

Prior to the governor’s news conference, Wake County Public Schools announced it would be closing schools from March 16 through March 27. The announcement included information that an elementary school teacher in Fuquay Varina has tested positive. Wake County is the state’s largest school district with over 160,000 students.

Wake County Schools’ message indicated that they would be moving up Spring Break, which was scheduled for the second week of April. In addition, the district will also use any remaining banked time and are working on communicating with staff about salaries and other work-related issues.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest issued a statement on Facebook in support of the closures.

“Today, the governor decided to make the difficult decision to close all public schools in North Carolina for the next two weeks,” Forest wrote. “This decision may be extended into the future, depending on the circumstances. As a voting member of the State Board of Education, I agreed with this decision.”

Forest went on to note that he has spoken with medical professionals who indicate that while children do not to typically sicken from COVID-19, they can potentially be putting family members at risk by carrying the virus back to parents or grandparents.

“As I have said before, this is not a time for panic or fear, but a time for caution. This means that each of us has a responsibility to do our part to “flatten the curve” and ensure that we reduce the impact of this virus,” Forest said in his post.

NSJ reached out to Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) about the school closure order. Ballard is the Chair of both the Senate Education/Higher Education and the Education/Higher Education Appropriations Committees.

“I do probably think at this time that this is in the best interest of the health and safety of our students and our teaching professionals,” said Ballard. “I just want folks to really exert caution.”

Ballard says she is concerned that with the schools closed, child care may fall on grandparents who are at higher risk for falling seriously ill. She also says there is a lot of work ahead of lawmakers and state officials.

“It has been one day at a time for a few days now, but I do appreciate the amount of stakeholder participation from the education community that has been involved in the conversation,” said Ballard. “We’ll see how we can best support the effort and see what the legislature needs to do moving forward as well.”

Ballard’s education committee counterpart in the House is Craig Horn (R-Union), who serves as Chair on the Education K-12 and Education Appropriations Committees.

Horn tells NSJ that he doesn’t know of any data for short term closings having an effect on curbing the virus, but that the governor’s announcement was the right thing to do. He said he was happy to hear that meals for students were being addressed.

“It’s a challenge for the legislature to address as well as for our teacher prep programs,” said Horn of the school closures. “Getting back to the challenges it creates for our K-12 students, well, we’ve got graduation requirements for a certain number of hours in school. We’ve got issues for certification for jobs. We’ve got scholarship issues. So, it’s going to be quite a challenge for the legislature to deal with these issues as well as administrators.”

Horn raised the issue of the implications of schools being closed on non-educators and staff positions like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodial staff and other support staff.  He also said he has concerns about the impact closures will have on family dynamics, household incomes, first responders and parents.

“We have begun to work on this – in fact, we began working with our staff earlier this week to address issues related to this,” said Horn.

Horn says he’s been looking back at other disasters in the past were handled, giving examples like hurricanes, storms, swine flu and even as far back as the Spanish Influenza over a hundred years ago.

Horn had been a candidate for State Superintendent but was defeated in the primary by Catherine Truitt, an education advisor to former governor Pat McCrory and who currently is the Chancellor for Western Governor’s University.

“Closing for two weeks is a sensible precaution,” Truitt told NSJ in an email. “Although children and teenagers are unlikely to be adversely affected, we don’t want them to spread the virus to our vulnerable populations.”

Truitt also said she was “thrilled to see so many faith-based organizations and parents step up to help collect food for those who receive breakfast and lunch from their neighborhood school.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

 A.P. Dillon and Matt Mercer both contributed to this article.