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State legislature passes bill to send students back to school, awaits governor approval

Senate Bill 37 passed in the Senate and the House last week, bringing North Carolina closer to giving all local public school administrative units the option of in-person instruction to students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a new bill to make all local public school administrative units provide the option of in-person instruction to students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Senate Bill 37 sped through both the state Senate and House last week, receiving considerable bipartisan support. Now, the bill is sitting on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, as he weighs whether or not he should enact the legislation. 

The bill would still allow for parents and students to opt out of in-person learning, remaining in the virtual classroom for the rest of the school year if they choose to. 

It doesn’t appear to have Cooper’s support, however, despite him calling on K-12 school districts across the state to allow in-person instruction earlier in the month. 

“Children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement on Feb. 17. “This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts."

Given the margins by which it passed in the General Assembly though, it’s possible there may be sufficient votes to override a veto. 

A sense of urgency

Officials across the state have recently expressed their support for the return of in-person instruction, citing the damage prolonged periods away from the classroom has had on students. Among them is Catherine Truitt, the state’s newly elected superintendent of public instruction. 

She said the challenge of returning to in-person instruction was necessary so students could fulfill their full potential. 

“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 in a statement on Feb. 2.  

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree with Truitt on that front. 

N.C. Rep. Erin Paré (R–Wake) said passing the bill shouldn’t be up for debate. 

She said virtual learning wasn’t working for a significant portion of the state’s students, and delaying the return to in-person instruction would only add to the damage the pandemic has already done to children in the classroom. 

“This is a common-sense bill that makes sure parents with children who need to be in school in-person have that option,” Paré said in a statement on Tuesday. “No more delay. We need to provide families with the option to get their kids back in school.”

N.C. Sen. Ben Clark (D–Cumberland, Hoke), one of three Democrats in the Senate who voted in favor of the bill, also said he wanted students to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

He said there were plenty of examples of school districts where students have returned to the classroom safely. He also said he had never seen as much support expressed from constituents for any proposal as he had for this one. 

“You can always find reasons for not doing something,” Clark said. “What we’re asking them to do now is find ways and reasons to get done what needs to be done.” 

Mixed messaging 

N.C. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D–Wake) said he opposed the bill because it did not comply with state and federal guidelines for student safety, including recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. 

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He said Democrats in both chambers did what they could to address gaps in the legislation. Proposed amendments included a more detailed rollout of the return to in-person instruction for special needs students and a measure to provide increased social distancing for students in grades 6-12. 

“Senate Democrats offered amendments and a bill that addressed these concerns so we return our children back to school safely and efficiently," Chaudhuri said in an email. “Unfortunately, the Republicans had no desire to incorporate these measures into their bill."

In a Feb. 17 statement, though, Truitt appeared to contradict both Chaudhuri and Cooper directly. She said the bill was in line with NCDHHS public safety guidelines, as it required schools to follow the guidelines put forth in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. 

N.C. Rep. John Bradford, III (R–Mecklenburg) also said he believed the bill did enough to address student safety concerns. 

Instead of adding new guidelines, he said, the bill simply mandated schools to follow those already in place, such as those in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. Bradford said codifying the Toolkit’s guidance would help provide a solid baseline for what schools should use when students come back. 

“There’s a lot of consternation out there,” Bradford said, “so I thought this would kind of clear the matter up about ‘What do we use for guidance?’” 

Some Democratic lawmakers argue the bill isn’t necessary at this point and that it’s an example of political maneuvering from state Republicans. 

In a briefing last week, Cooper said 91 of the state’s 115 school districts have already begun offering in-person instruction. He added that 95 percent of school districts will have returned to some form of in-person learning by mid-March, which would serve 96 percent of the state’s students.

N.C. Rep. Ricky Hurtado (D–Alamance) said this was important to keep in mind when considering the adoption of this bill. He said he believed the bill was unnecessary and that it took attention away from other important issues. 

“The fact they’d rather choose to play politics with an issue that folks were already working on, I think, shows you the priorities of the current leaders of the General Assembly,” Hurtado said. 

What’s next?

School districts are preparing for the possibility of returning back to the classroom should this bill become law in the coming days. 

Orange County Schools has opened in-person for students in kindergarten and first grade, and plans to let the rest of the students come back to classrooms in April. But at a Monday meeting, the OCS Board of Education said the district would look to bring back the rest of students as soon as March if the bill passes. 

Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, said CHCCS was also looking to make plans to comply with the bill if it is enacted.

He said the school district’s original plan, approved at a Feb. 4 board meeting, was to return to in-person education around mid-April. He also said there hasn’t been as much debate about the bill since the issue of returning to the classroom was effectively settled during that meeting, or so they thought.

CHCCS sent out a survey last week asking parents whether or not their children would be opting into in-person instruction if given the option. This, he said, will help the district figure out logistical issues, such as class sizes and the number of teachers needed to return to the classroom. 

He said the district was also cooperating with state and local health authorities to organize a vaccination campaign for teachers who choose to return to the classroom. 

“Lots to do between now and when we open, but those wheels are turning,” Nash said. “We are working hard to get ready for opening day.” 


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