Bill requiring NC public schools to reopen hits snag

Posted February 11, 2021 1:20 p.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2021 6:21 p.m. EST

— The state House quickly passed a measure Thursday that would force school districts across North Carolina to reopen their doors to students who want the option of in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 74-44 vote sent Senate Bill 37 back to the Senate for a final vote. But senators knocked it off the fast track, disagreeing with changes made by the House and sending it a conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

House Democrats called the legislation needless government overreach, noting 90 percent of North Carolina's school districts have already reopened, and the remainder plan to do so.

"There's nobody that wants to reopen that can't really reopen right now," House Minority Leader Robert Reives said.

"I don't see the need to mandate anything if we're all in agreement that we need to reopen schools," said Rep. Raymond Smith, D-Wayne. "There's a much better way to do that – by giving local school boards the ability to make that decision for themselves."

"We can't keep usurping the authority of who was elected at the local level," said Rep. James Gailliard, D-Nash.

Gov. Roy Cooper has expressed similar reservations about the bill, saying decisions about reopening should be left up to local boards. Still, he urged districts last week to get more students in classrooms.

Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, said Cooper's statement is fine, but the state needs to have a requirement in place so districts can't waffle on the issue.

"The time is now. Let's go," Bradford said.

House Majority Leader John Bell noted that his own young daughter has struggled learning to read in online kindergarten classes and is desperate to go to school more than two days a week.

"The science and data is very clear: Schools are safe to reopen," said Bell, R-Wayne. "Our schools are essential, and our students matter."

The bill would give school districts two weeks to plan before getting students back into classrooms safely, at least part-time. It also would require the option of full-time, in-person learning for all special-needs students.

Families that want to continue with remote learning can do so.

Schools would have to follow all safety guidelines, including 6 feet of distancing for students in middle schools and high schools.

The Wake County Public School System recently surveyed principals on whether they could keep students 6 feet apart if students attended school daily or on a rotating basis.

For middle schools, 85 percent said they could only if students attended school in rotation. Only 5 percent said they could maintain enough distance if the entire student body attended daily. For high schools, 93 percent said they could maintain 6 feet of distance if students attended in rotation. None said they could do it if students attended daily.

The House slightly changed the bill on Wednesday, allowing teachers who are at high risk for complications from COVID-19 or who care for children or adults who are high risk to opt out of in-person instruction. But the Republican majority beat back several Democrat-sponsored amendments to change the bill even more, such as including charter schools, giving districts more time to plan or giving districts more control over the amount of required distancing in classrooms.

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