RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Gov. Roy Cooper is urging schools to reopen amid the pandemic to help students for “reasons beyond academic instruction.”

“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,” he said.

Cooper said research shows in-person learning can be done safely.

CBS17 recently reported on a study by the ABC Science Collaborative, a joint effort from researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, found just 32 cases of secondary transmission in schools among roughly 90,000 students and staff in 11 districts across the state with in-person instruction over nine weeks last fall.

“It’s time to get our children back into the classroom,” Cooper said.

But it is important for schools to follow the safety protocols laid out by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, he said.

NCDHHS updated its “StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit” on Tuesday with new guidance for schools to safely reopen.

The governor said getting students back into school has been a No. 1 priority.

“Students who are ready to get back to the classroom should get that chance,” he said.

While Cooper is recommending schools have in-person learning, Republicans in the General Assembly want to go further and require districts to have an in-person option.

Sarah Baker is in favor of that.

She told a Senate committee Tuesday about her 10-year-old son James who she said has a rare seizure disorder, multiple disabilities, is non-verbal and cannot walk.

With remote learning, she said her son does not have access to therapies and other assistance he normally would at school.

“He can’t really get those virtually, and the teachers are trying so hard. But, there’s just a limit to what they can do through the screen,” Baker said. “He doesn’t understand why the teachers are on the screen, and he has just seemed more and more depressed.”

A bill that the state Senate could vote on Thursday would also allow for remote learning for families that choose it.

School districts also could close a classroom or school to in-person learning due to staffing issues of students having to quarantine as a result of COVID-19.

“The time has come really for us to give parents the option of in-person instruction for their kids. So, I’m stepping up and taking action. Enough is enough,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-45th District).

“One of our local superintendents recently shared with me that the suicide rate among teens is higher than the COVID rate of death in their county.”

Cooper said Tuesday he has concerns about the bill but did not say explicitly whether he would veto it.

“I don’t think that’s the way to go. I think the way to go is to get our local school boards to take this action. And, I believe that many of them, most of them will do so and hopefully all of them will do so because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

During a hearing on the bill Tuesday, Dr. Danny Benjamin with the ABC Science Collaborative credited the state’s health guidance for leading to the limited cases of transmission in schools that were part of the group’s study.

“If schools do not have strong mitigation measures in place, they will indeed serve to increase community spread and it will compromise public health,” he said.

He also addressed concerns about returning to classrooms with more contagious variants of COVID-19 emerging.

“I think that North Carolina is in much better shape than the rest of the world because of the DHHS standards,” he said. “There is no evidence that the virus passes more effectively through masks.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (R) also spoke Tuesday and urged schools to give students the option of in-person learning.

Truitt cited data that showed in-person can be done safely.

“Learning loss resulting from COVID has the potential to be a generational hurdle, but the data we have seen shows us that schools can reopen safely if they adhere to COVID prevention policies,” Truitt said. “This is absolutely a challenge we must face head-on.”

NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said research shows strong prevention measures work in schools.

“Even with the thousands of students and teachers attending school in-person across the state, we have seen few COVID-19 clusters in our public schools,” said Cohen. “Our Department will continue to serve our school communities, offering resources and support so we can keep our school doors open.”

Cooper, Truitt, Cohen, and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis sent a letter to local school board members and superintendents encouraging in-person instruction across the state.

That letter can be read here.

In response, the North Carolina Associated of Educators said educators need to be vaccinated before schools reopen.

“Without the widespread vaccination of educators and strictly enforced social distancing, it is impossible for many schools to open safely, and for the schools that have been open, they need help,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Cooper was asked about vaccinating teachers at Tuesday’s press conference.

He said teachers are considered essential workers and are “up next” to receive the vaccine.

He and Cohen did not indicate there will be any changes to the vaccine prioritization list.

Educators are included in Group 3 with other frontline essential workers. It’s not clear when Group 3 will become eligible to receive the vaccine.

“But, I want to remind folks, and I keep saying this, there is such limited supply right now. We’re still seeing very high demand for those who are 65 and up,” Cohen said.  

Cooper’s comments come as North Carolina marks its lowest number of hospitalizations since Dec. 15 and the smallest single-day total of new cases since Dec. 27.

Cooper said the recent trends show “stabilization” but urged North Carolinians to not let their guard down.