Gov. Roy Cooper announced Monday all K-12 public schools throughout the state will close through May 15 in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Cooper said he will sign an executive order Monday, which also will close hair and nail salons, gyms, barber shops, massage therapists and movie theaters effective 5 p.m. Wednesday. The order also will lower the threshold to ban mass gatherings of more than 50 people.

Cooper announced the executive order during a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. The press conference also included North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and Vice Chairman of the State Board of Education Alan Duncan.

“During the Great Depression, North Carolina’s leaders made sure that the schools stayed open despite tremendous funding challenges,” Cooper said. “In that spirit, I’m not ready to give up on this year of school. However, we know that the effects of this pandemic will not subside any time soon.”

Cooper and his team arrived at the May 15 date by reviewing the latest information from the CDC and through guidance from public health officials. Should the guidance change, he will make the decision to adjust the order, he said.

“I know that many parents have been expecting something like this,” Cooper said. “I know that this is extremely difficult for you and your children, but this is what we need to do to help to slow the spread of the virus. I’m committed to ensuring that our students get an education, and get as much of an education as they can.”

What’s Next?During the press conference Monday, Cooper said he is committed to ensuring students obtain “as much of an education as they can this year.” In line with this, he has asked the State Board of Education and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop a program to provide students with as much remote learning as possible.

Last week, Burke County Public Schools Public Relations Officer Cheryl Shuffler addressed the high percentage of both students and teachers who lack reliable Internet access at home.

However, Duncan acknowledged this is an issue that the State Board of Education is discussing.

“We know that remote instruction is going to look different in communities across the state,” Duncan said. “Inequities in local resources and digital access further complicate matters. We will take all possible steps to mitigate these inequities and to articulate best practices as thousands of teachers work to apply those practices.”

Duncan announced that Johnson and the State Board of Education sought a federal waiver of testing requirements Monday.

“We expect that it will be granted in short order,” Duncan said. “The State Board (of Education) and Superintendent Johnson are already in close contact with GA members about the state level waivers that will also be needed to address COVID-19 for this school year.”

We will continue to collaborate with our partners in the General Assembly and local leaders to address the policy and local issues that will inevitably arise.

Cooper said he placed a conference call with Internet service providers urging them to allow access to students. Superintendent Johnson said he and his team have been working with the governor’s team, the State Board of Education, the General Assembly and local leaders on the next steps for the schools.

Those plans include the elimination of end-of-grade testing, calendar flexibility, teacher and staff compensation and graduations.

Furthermore, Cohen also addressed the importance that child care plays during the school closure, as many schools throughout the state and here locally have served as child care sites throughout the crisis.

“Child care is a critical service,” Cohen said. “We need that child care to be available to keep our communities safe and healthy as part of the state’s COVID-19 response. We want to have quality child care so those on the front lines can know that their children are being well cared for as they care for others.”

Cohen announced that DHHS will be sending out updated health safety and operational guidance to child care programs to best protect the health and safety of both the child care workforce and the children and families they serve.

“We know the child care industry, like others, are also struggling financially,” Cohen said. “We’re also actively pursuing options for financial support to child care programs in order to assure available child care is there for those families who need it during this crisis.”

Food Distribution ProgramLast week, Shuffler said the school system’s priority was the health and safety of its students and staff, which includes its feeding program.

On Monday, Shuffler said BCPS served 29,312 meals last week through its food distribution programs.

As of Sunday, more than 1,100 schools throughout the state served more than 1.2 million meals since the closure began on March 16, Cooper said.

To view a route schedule of the food distribution buses, visit here.

The News Herald will provide more updates when they become available.

Johnny Casey can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907.

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