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Expecting school to reopen like normal next year? Don’t.

“I will be blunt. Since the start of our switch to remote learning in March, I have held the belief that we are going to need to utilize remote learning next school year as well in some form or fashion.”

That’s what state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said in an email to members and advisors of a task force looking at how to safely reopen schools amid COVID-19.

The email from Johnson to the Schools Reopening Task Force contains a number of documents, including a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “decision tree” that has stark consequences for the likelihood of schools returning to normal in the fall.

CDC decision tree for schools during COVID-19. Courtesy of the CDC

Update: more detailed guidance from the CDC was sent out to task for members this morning. School guidance starts on page 45. Click here.

“Even without state health guidelines at this point, though, the CDC guidelines alone present daunting challenges for our schools,” Johnson wrote in his email. “Under this decision tree, to move beyond the first column, we must ensure we put measures in place to:

  • protect students and staff who are at higher risk of illness, and
  • screen students and staff when they get to school.”

After mentioning his belief that remote learning will have to continue in some form next year, Johnson’s email notes some of the additional hurdles to reopening schools.

“As guidelines start to take shape, we see that we will need options to at least protect students and teachers who are in the high-risk category. Also, depending on how schools must screen students before entering, a screening process could take hours if schools are near capacity. And, that doesn’t even start to account for the space required depending on NC DHHS’ upcoming guidance on social distancing at schools,” he wrote.

He tells task force members in the email that state education leaders are “brainstorming ideas to rethink what remote learning could look like for an entire state.” He goes on to list a number of possibilities:

  • “addressing teacher shortages through the help of teachers in the at-risk category who could create remote lessons from home for students anywhere in the state to use”
  • “more remote lessons coordinated from the district or state level instead of individual schools creating all of their own lessons (allowing teachers more one-on-one time with students, even if remotely)”
  • “utilizing more remote learning tools with built in lessons and support that already have a strong track record of use before this crisis”
  • “reopening schools for lower grades first while relying on remote learning at the start of the year for high school, etc”

Johnson ends the email by saying that when the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services provides “final health guidance for schools,” discussions about structuring school with social distancing in mind will begin.

The following documents were also included in the email. They are from other states and organizations, and Johnson said they are “good references of where we are heading.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.