NC Republicans promise bill to force schools open

Republican lawmakers promise a bill to demand schools offer in-person learning again, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Posted Updated

Laura Leslie
, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief, & Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican lawmakers are drafting legislation to reopen schools amid the pandemic and plan to release a proposal in the coming days, state Senate leadership said Thursday afternoon.

The bill would likely require all public school districts to offer in-person learning but also give parents the option of virtual learning if they choose.

Such a measure would attempt to force Gov. Roy Cooper's hand, although the governor said this week that his education team is looking at the latest research that indicates little transmission risk if schools open with widespread masking and other precautions in place.

There's broad consensus in North Carolina that remote learning has not worked well for many students, educationally or psychologically. There's similarly broad agreement that local school districts should have the final say in how they reopen.

What many don't agree on is when it's likely to be safe to do that.

A study published this month by Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers looked at 11 school districts in the state last fall and found little evidence that students in K-12 schools were spreading coronavirus.

Cooper's existing emergency orders allow in-person, full-time classes only for students through fifth grade, with local systems deciding what to offer. Middle school and high school classes must be either all remote or a mix of in-person and remote learning.

That could change.

"I know that our team is going to study the data and work with the State Board of Education, and I think you will hear more from educators and from our health team in the coming days looking at that study," Cooper said Wednesday, "and just remembering that we do want to get our children back in school as soon as we safely can."

Not all scientists agree on the risks posed by children attending school in person, though. Last week, according to The Wall Street Journal, European researchers raised alarms about transmission in schools, particularly in light of the arrival of two more infectious variants of the virus.

The University of Geneva's director of global health, Antoine Flahault, told the newspaper, “In the second wave, we acquired much more evidence that schoolchildren are almost equally, if not more, infected by SARS-CoV-2 than others.“

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has been pushing for North Carolina schools to reopen since last fall. He says children are paying the price for remote learning, and not just in lost educational progress.

"We’re seeing indications that suicides are up [and] mental health issues are up. We’ve got all sorts of other problems that are out there that are just bubbling to the surface at the present time," Berger, R-Rockingham, told reporters Wednesday. "It didn't have to be like this."

On Thursday, Berger said in a statement announcing the new bill that Cooper "has not acted decisively, and the public education bureaucracy has rejected its most fundamental task: educating our children."

"It’s time for this travesty to end," he said.

Berger wants Cooper to lift his statewide order and let local officials choose how and when they want to reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning for all students.

“There are some concerns about the adults that are in the classrooms, and I think there are protocols that can be put in place that will provide adequate and appropriate protection for those adults," Berger said. "I think the legislature will be looking at what we can do to try to move along the attendance of kids in person in classrooms, five days a week."

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue agreed that local school districts, not state lawmakers, should have the final say on how and when to reopen schools.

"We can’t say – shouldn’t say – that a school is going to open on Date X when we don’t know all the circumstances around it," Blue, D-Wake, said. "So much of this depends on what is the availability of vaccine [and] how we can keep as many of our citizens as possible safe."

Blue said he worries about the safety of teachers, school staff and students' families as long as community transmission rates remain high. He said he thinks more vaccinations are needed to make reopening safer.

"Everything goes back and focuses on the pandemic. That’s why schools aren’t open," he said on a call with reporters Wednesday. "We’ve got to do something to address the pandemic, and I think we’ve taken great strides over the last six days to start doing something."


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