Governor orders public school closures, bans large gatherings across North Carolina

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Editor’s Note: The News + Record will continue to update this and other stories about what Chatham County Schools and the county’s other educational institutions do in response to COVID-19.

N.C. Governor Roy Cooper ordered the closure of all public schools in North Carolina for the next two weeks and banned gatherings of 100 or more in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus that has spread across the globe.

On Saturday, Cooper announced in a press conference, alongside representatives from the Dept. of Health and Human Services and education officials, that all public schools would be closed for classes beginning Monday through executive order.

Two days earlier, Cooper had indicated the state was willing to make “tough decisions” in response to the pandemic.

“We have the benefit of learning from other countries and other states about the best ways to fight this pandemic,” Cooper said in a news release. “We know that if we can slow the spread of this virus now, then fewer people will be infected or become seriously ill. And we can be more effective in avoiding an overload of our medical system. It will save lives.”

The Chatham County Board of Education and the Chatham County Schools have been holding multiple meetings to discuss how to address the growing health crisis and the safety of its students and staff. Last week, athletics, field trips and unnecessary visitors were restricted in efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The school system distributed a survey for parents to assess accessibility of internet access to determine the best path forward for distance learning for students.

A phone message to parents of Chatham County Schools students by the system noted that due to the “unprecedented nature” of the situation, “information is evolving” and would be provided once finalized.

“We certainly understand what our students, families and staff are facing,” Chatham County Schools Public Relations Coordinator John McCann said in an interview after the announcement. “We appreciate everybody’s patience, because this is different. We’re all in this together.”

In a news release Sunday morning, Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne encouraged residents with children to make sure they’re not left with people who may be at higher risk to be exposed to COVID-19.

“We understand the decision to close schools will present challenges for many Chatham County families,” LaMontagne said. “At the same time, we know that the new coronavirus is of particular concern for people age 65 and older as well as those with medical conditions like heart and lung disease, diabetes and weakened immune systems. To the extent possible, we urge residents to avoid leaving children with individuals who are high risk in order to limit potential exposure to the virus.

Additionally, County Public Health Director Layton Long stressed the importance of “social distancing” — staying six feet apart from others and avoiding crowded spaces.

“We continue to ask residents to take important steps to stay healthy: Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, cover your cough with your elbow, and stay home if you are sick except to seek medical care,” Long said in the news release. “We especially urge those who are high risk to do everything possible to decrease the chance of infection, and ask their family members to be mindful of this as well.”

In his Saturday press conference, Cooper also banned large gatherings of more than 100 people. He said that retail establishments and restaurants were not included in the ban, but asked that owners heed the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, people practice “social distancing” and owners act in a way to ensure the safety of its customers.

School district staff said Thursday they'd already begun assessing the county’s ability to have students learn from home. There are some challenges, Jordan said, they are already facing.

“There are large sections of our district that do not have access to the internet,” he said. “What we have done is identified potential virtual learning opportunities. We are also looking at traditional packets, should the decision be made to close school. There’s not a magic bullet.”

Keith Medlin, the district’s chief information & technology officer, said discussions had already taken place about getting “reliable computers” in the hands of students should remote classes be necessary, while also acknowledging the barrier of internet connection for some. One idea that had been floated he said, was having parents park outside schools and have their children access the school’s internet to do work.

Individuals with questions about the virus or testing, visit the Chatham County Health Department's website or the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services website.

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at caseymann@chathamnr.com, and Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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