A press conference on Feb. 2 in which Gov. Roy Cooper and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt urged school districts to return to in-person learning created confusion across the state about what, if anything, had changed.

Many families were unsure if the comments indicated a mandate from the state to bring students back to school on a regular schedule.

The Jackson County Public Schools system already makes every effort within existing state guidelines to offer each student an option for in-person learning at least two days per week, Interim Superintendent Tony Tipton said.

Currently, 77 percent of the district’s total enrollment have chosen the option for in-person learning.

“Nothing changed in the requirements that schools must meet,” Tipton said. “The governor and state superintendent were simply encouraging districts to open up as fully as possible across the state.”

All schools in North Carolina must follow the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We had hoped the 6 feet distancing requirement for grades 6-8 would be changed to align with the requirement for grades K-5 so we could add middle school students to the four-day week,” Tipton said. “Since that did not occur, JCPS will continue with the current operating arrangements.”

Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan offered further clarification regarding the comments made by state officials at the Feb. 2 press conference.

“The governor was encouraging some districts across the state that have been remote-only for much of the school year to begin more face-to-face learning, which is what Jackson County Public Schools have been doing for most of the school year,” Buchanan said.

Tipton agreed and credited JCPS staff, students and parents for being flexible and supportive as the district has adapted to changes in state requirements as well as a spike in positive COVID-19 cases following the holidays.

“I will compare what JCPS has done this school year with any district in the state,” Tipton said. “Every time the guidelines have changed and allowed more students to be in school, we have changed with them.”

Tipton and Buchanan are proud that Jackson County Public Schools have maintained a low rate of COVID-19 infection compared to many other school districts. 

As of Feb. 5, only 54 staff members and 104 students had reported positive COVID-19 test results.

“When you compare our numbers and what we have accomplished to others in WNC and across the state, it really is amazing how well JCPS has done,” Buchanan said. “Without the support of our staff, parents and students, this would not have been possible.”