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Cooper authorizes full reopening for K-5

RALEIGH — School districts can allow elementary grade students to return to the classroom next month, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday during a news conference, but middle and high school students won’t have the same opportunity.

The announcement — allowing local school districts to provide in-person instruction full-time to younger students — comes a day after Republican leaders urged the governor to offer that option at all levels statewide and let parents decide.

Although a step in the right direction, Cooper's action falls short, Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said later Thursday.

“His new plan ignores the needs of low-income and exceptional students in middle and high schools for in-person instruction,” Berger said in a news release.

Berger, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Catherine Truitt, the Republican nominee for state schools superintendent, had called on Wednesday for schools to fully reopen. A handful of parents took part in the news conference to share their dissatisfaction with the remote instruction plans.

Cooper said his decision wasn’t connected to the Republicans' news conference at the General Assembly.

Over the summer, the state told school districts to create three reopening plans, from most to least restrictive. Plan A had the fewest restrictions, allowing in-person instruction with minimal social distancing of students and staff. Plan B required more stringent social distancing and fewer people in the school building. Under Plan C, schools could use only remote learning.

The Henderson County School Board adopted a hybrid "Return to Learn" schedule with preK-2 students returning to school five days a week and grades 3-12 split into Group A and Group B each attending in person two days a week starting next week.

On July 14, Cooper announced school districts could either use Plan B or Plan C. No school district was allowed to offer Plan A, regardless of the COVID-19 metrics in the area.

But now, starting on Oct. 5, school districts can switch to plan A for kindergarten through fifth grade, though older grade levels must stay on either plan B or C.

“We are able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers,” Cooper said.

Face masks and social distancing are still required under Plan A, but unlike Plan B, schools won’t have to reduce the number of students allowed in the building at the same time.

Neither Cooper, nor Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave a timeline for when middle and high schools grades can return to classrooms full-time.