North Carolina's public school buildings, already shuttered for the past month due to COVID-19, won't reopen this school year, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday.
The decision was largely expected. Cooper originally closed K-12 schools in all 115 districts in mid-March for two weeks, then extended his executive order through May 15.
Cooper on Thursday extended a statewide stay-at-home order for another two weeks, saying case and hospitalization trends did not support loosening restrictions. And his plan by which businesses could reopen and mass gathering limits eased if epidemiological and supply goals are met would not be fully achieved until mid-June at the earliest.
"We don't make this decision likely, but it's important to protect the health and safety of our students and our school staff," Cooper said at a media briefing.
Today, we’ve had to make another tough choice. Together with Superintendent Johnson and Chairman Davis, we have decided to continue remote learning for the rest of this school year for our K-12 public schools. School classrooms may be closed, but the learning is not over.
— Governor Roy Cooper (@NC_Governor) April 24, 2020
North Carolina's case total exceeded 8,050 as of Friday, an increase of more than 440 cases compared to Thursday, according to state Department of Health and Human Services data. At least 269 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, the agency said, and more than 475 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized. More than 100,000 tests have been conducted statewide.
State and local educators have tried to bridge the closings through online instruction, issuing computers to low-income families and curriculum-based programming on public television. Districts and volunteers have marshaled forces to distribute meals to needy children who rely on the school lunch program. Teachers and other school employees should continue to be paid through the rest of the school year, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said.
Legislators returning next week to distribute COVID-19 funds and approve policy changes are expected to consider a measure to allow public schools to reopen roughly a week earlier than usual. And school districts would be directed to provide additional instruction for young children already at-risk of academic failure, especially those who have struggled without online access during the pandemic.
"This has been a true challenge, not just for our educators, but for our parents as well," Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said earlier Friday, adding he was excited to begin a "more proactive approach." Cooper said the reopening of buildings in the summer and fall will depend on meeting health goals that will be developed.
The State Board of Education agreed this week that elementary and middle school students would not receive traditional grades for the year, while those in grades 9-11 would have the option to receive a pass-fail grade or a numerical score. Graduating seniors already were told they would receive pass-fail grades based on how they were doing in mid-March, with opportunities this spring to meet graduation requirements.
Cooper's decision came after the announcement that the first state prisoner at a Wayne County prison with over 440 positive COVID-19 cases among the offender population has died.
The prisoner, identified only as a man in his late 70s with underlying health conditions, died at an unnamed hospital Thursday, five days after testing positive, the Division of Prisons said. The prisoner was at Neuse Correctional Institution, where all offenders at the dormitory-style facility are being tested after a couple of positive cases earlier this month. Nearly all the offenders testing positive are asymptomatic, the prison system has said.
The Neuse death is the second COVID-19-related death within North Carolina's prisons. The first happened earlier this week with a prisoner at Pender Correctional Institution.
North Carolina's stretched unemployment benefit system, which has taken in 734,000 initial claims since mid-March, began Friday accepting applications for the self-employed and independent contractors who don't normally quality for state benefits. The federal coronavirus relief package funded such assistance, but it took time to receive it. Cooper earlier this week issued an executive order to make it easier for furloughed workers to get benefits.