@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Measure to force schools to reopen amid pandemic heading to governor

Posted February 17, 2021 3:38 p.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2021 2:06 p.m. EST

— State lawmakers have given final approval to legislation that would require school districts across North Carolina to reopen their doors to students who want the option of in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Bill 37 passed the House 76-42 on Wednesday, following a 31-16 vote in the Senate on Tuesday. Eleven Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans in supporting the measure.

The bill now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, who has urged school districts to get students back into classrooms as soon as possible. Still, he has expressed reservations about a state mandate to reopen schools, saying decisions on school operations should be left up to local officials.

"Children should be back in the classroom safely, and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to [state Department of Health and Human Services] health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies. This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts," Cooper said in a statement before the House vote.

The governor has 10 days after receiving the bill to sign it or veto it. If he takes no action in that time, the measure becomes law even without his signature.

The votes in both the House and the Senate on the bill are large enough to override a veto.

"Parents and children have waited long enough for some level of certainty in their public education. I hope that Gov. Cooper chooses not to drag this out for another week and a half," Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, co-chair of the Senate Education committee, said in a statement. "If a veto is coming, then do it now so the legislature can vote to override. If the governor intends to let it become law, then he should sign it instead of taking the politically expedient option of dragging this out to the end of the month."

"This is not a question about bars. This is not a question about bowling alleys. This is about children. Dragging this decision out for another 10 days would be yet another affront to parents who desperately want some certainty in their children's education," agreed Kelly Mann, a Wake County mother who has pressed for children to return to schools.

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

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

Many teachers oppose the bill, saying teaching in person puts their health and their families' health at risk.

Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, said the bill allows those teachers to ask their school district for special accommodations.

"Not only are we helping teachers who feel like they may be high risk, but we're also giving them the opportunity to be considered for any minors that they're the caretaker of," Bradford said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt called the legislation "a win for students, parents and districts."

"SB 37 provides local discretion for school districts while allowing our students to be back in the classroom for in-person instruction," Truitt said in a statement. "Parents still have a choice in which learning environment is best for their child, while teachers and staff who are uncomfortable returning have alternative options to minimize face-to-face contact and risk of exposure."

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