CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina health leaders are moving to the next group of people getting vaccinated.
Gov. Cooper announced they are moving to Group 3, meaning that starting on Feb. 24, educators, school staff, childcare providers in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Those eligible will be staff in childcare centers and homes, head start programs, preschool and pre-k programs, traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. This includes teachers, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and any other staff working in those schools.
The state anticipates that to be about 240,000 people.
“This is important. Essential workers are just that, essential,” Cooper said. “They have worked throughout this pandemic and we know that educators can continue to work safely even before the vaccine being administered as long as schools follow state guidelines.”
It’s another step to get children and teachers back into the classrooms safely.
As of Wednesday, more than 1.5 million vaccine doses have been administered in North Carolina.
Cooper said that frontline healthcare workers, those 65 and older and staff and residents at long-term living facilities will still continue to receive the vaccine.
State health officials say that 80 percent of the coronavirus-related deaths in North Carolina are people 65 years and older.
“It is critical to get this age group vaccinated,” Cooper said. “People in this group are still getting first and second vaccinations. That will keep happening even after the next phase starts.”
With a still limited supply of the vaccine coming to North Carolina, including a five percent increase promised by the Biden Administration, Group 3 will be split. During the first doses beginning Feb. 24, the essential workers permitted to receiving the vaccine include staff in childcare centers and homes, head start programs, preschool and pre-k programs, traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. This includes teachers, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and any other staff working in those schools.
Others will be allowed vaccination beginning March 10.
“Moving to the next phase is good news,” Cooper said. “The challenge continues to be very limited supply of the vaccine. The more vaccine we get, the better we are and we are going to keep pushing.”
Just last week, North Carolina Superintendent Catherine Truitt joined Gov. Cooper and other state leaders on Tuesday to urge school districts across the state to reopen for in-person instruction.
Some schools, including private and elementary schools, have already been permitted to return to school full-time.
The call from the governor and state education leaders is to recommend that all K-12 school districts across the state to allow in-person instruction for all students.
Truitt said this is time for school districts to allow students and teachers to return to school. However, children and teachers who are at-risk of COVID-19 can still have the option of learning remotely.
Cooper and state health and education leaders sent a letter to local school board members and superintendents encouraging in-person instruction across the state.
“Hard truth, even with immediate action, we face a challenging pathway ahead,” Truitt said. “Even before the COVID crisis, the majority of our students were already behind in reading and math proficiency. Imagine what has happened over nearly a year of remote learning.”
“This crisis has negatively impacted students’ mental health and overall well-being, as well as their academic preparation,” Truitt added.
Cooper endorses Truitt’s statement on reopening schools, but says it must be done safely.
“Now is time to get our children back in the classroom,” Cooper said. “Students who are ready to return to the classrooms should have that chance.”
On Tuesday, North Carolina health officials reported its smallest single-day coronavirus increase since Dec. 27, with 2,926 new cases. Hospitalizations are also at their lowest since Dec. 15.
Recently, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report saying it is possible for schools to safely reopen and limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Truitt said getting students back in person is important for the future of the children.
Truitt, a Republican, was elected as N.C.’s Department of Instruction Superintendent during last November’s election.
“I understand, for many schools, The logistics of returning to in-person instruction five days a week is a challenge, but this is a challenge we must face head-on,” Truitt said. “For some children, this challenge is about fulfilling their potential, but for others, it is as simple as ensuring they have a chance in life.”
Cooper didn’t issue an executive order forcing districts to reopen schools, but he is issuing guidance that allows districts to make their own decision.
“School is important for reasons beyond academic instruction,” Cooper said. “School is where students learn social skills, get reliable meals, and find their voices. Teachers play an important role in keeping students safe by identifying cases of abuse, hunger, homelessness and other challenges.”
CMS 9th grade teacher Lori Carter told WBTV she was frustrated by Governor Cooper’s announcement.
Carter said she sees teachers in neighboring counties get the vaccine, and she believes it should happen in Mecklenburg County.
“If we can just delay entry until the fourth quarter on March 15th that’s going to give the district additional time to put pressure on the state and Mecklenburg County Health Department to prioritize teachers,” Carter said. “To get us vaccinated and get all other student-facing staff vaccinated and then have kids come back into the buildings.”
Carter also cited concerns over inadequate air filtration systems in buildings and a lack of contact tracing.
Schools shut down in mid-March during the start of the pandemic
For most students, remote instruction has been the new, everyday way of learning.
Cooper said 90 or 115 school districts are providing in-person instruction for some or all of their students.
“What’s new is that research done right here in NC tells us in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols,” Cooper said. “It is safe to reopen our schools.”
The Raleigh News and Observer reported that Truitt informed other North Carolina elected officials of her plans during their Council of State meeting on Tuesday.
The North Carolina Association of Educators responded to the governor’s next phase:
“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, and today’s announcement from Governor Cooper is an important step forward in making that a possibility.
“By giving all educators, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, nutrition workers, and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely. We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority.
“This also shows how unnecessary Senate Bill 37 really is, which would undermine the return to in-person instruction by restricting the decision-making of local school boards and shows a lack of understanding about the necessity of mainstreaming most exceptional children as required by federal law. When it comes to these local decisions, a one-size-fits-all approach fails almost every time.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is preparing to return those students whose families have not opted for the Full Remote Academy to in-person instruction.
“Unless our Board votes to change that plan, pre-K students, students with disabilities identified for in-person services through an IEP process, students in grades K-5 and students at K-8 schools will return on A/B rotations beginning Feb. 15,” CMS said in a statement. “Students at traditional middle schools in grades 6-8 and high school students in grades 9-12 will return on A/B/C rotations beginning Feb. 22.”
On Monday, the Republicans of the North Carolina state senate filed a bill to reopen schools with an option for fully in-person learning.
Senate Bill 37, “In-Person Learning Choice for Families,” requires schools to provide access to in-person learning under Plan A (minimal social distancing) for students with exceptional needs.
It also requires schools to provide in-person learning options for all K-12 students under either Plan A or Plan B (moderate social distancing).
Families would still have the choice of remote learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
Schools will be required to follow all guidance from the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, which was developed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Studies have shown that with mitigation efforts schools can reopen safely.
Last week, the CDC concluded there is “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics in conjunction with Duke University and other institutions has concluded that the reopening of schools to in-person learning can be done safely.
The study looked at data from 11 school districts in North Carolina that were open for in-person instruction from August through October.
At least 90,000 students and staff are part of those systems and data showed, according to the study, that only 32 cases of COVID-19 could be traced back to transmission inside the schools.
Doctors who examined the data said following CDC rules were having a significant effect.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston plans to make a recommendation to the board of education for students to return to in-person learning in mid-February. But it’s not final until the board votes to approve it on Feb. 9.
CMS says nearly a third of students are failing at least one class. Many parents say that it’s partially due to the burden of virtual learning.
Senate Bill 37 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 2.
Cooper has previously said he wants schools to reopen, but only if it is deemed safe.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston plans to make a recommendation to the board of education for students to return to in-person learning in mid-February.