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NC law: No online classes for K-12 students for the first week of school

Posted July 8, 2020 7:01 p.m. EDT
Updated July 8, 2020 10:39 p.m. EDT

— State law says public schools can't do online classes in the first week of school this year.

The House wanted to change that before the mandatory Aug. 17 start of school, but the Senate went home Wednesday without agreeing to do so.

Lawmakers don't plan to take up any more bills before Sept. 2, leaving questions about whether Wake County and other school systems that plan to rotate students through in-person and online classes so that students can spread out will be able to do that for the first week of school.

"That first week of school will be in-person instruction," said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who leads the Senate's Republican majority.

What that means in practice remains to be seen. House Speaker Tim Moore said he believes Gov. Roy Cooper can override the rule by executive order, mooting the issue for systems that hope to do at least some online instruction in that first week.

Berger, R-Rockingham, said he wasn't sure about that. He and Moore are both attorneys.

"I don't know whether he's got the power to do that or not," Berger said. "I know he's not been shy about exercising power up to this point."

The Cooper administration is certainly expected to look for a way to give systems more flexibility. But spokespeople for the state Department of Public Instruction and the Wake County Public School System didn't immediately respond Wednesday to questions about just what the rule means.

The Wake County Board of Education voted last week on a plan to divide students into three groups, with each group spending a week in class and two weeks at home with online instruction.

Berger said he and other senators believe children need to be in school. It's rare for COVID-19 to cause health problems for young people, but it's not clear whether children are effective transmitters of the disease – whether they're likely to become carriers and spread it to parents, teachers and other adults.

"There's no question that children are going to catch the virus," Berger said. "The question is whether or not it's going to be something that's going to tax our health resources, or it's going to be something that's going to cause someone else to get sick. And I think that we can control for both of those things without requiring every child in the state of North Carolina to either distance learn or show up every third day."

Berger said that, if it was up to him, he'd limit remote instruction days beyond the first week of school, too.

Too many parents are going to be faced with a decision, he said: Miss work to stay home with their children, or go to work and leave children alone, which brings a whole new set of problems.

"I think kids ought to be going back to school, regular schedule," he said.

The law in question passed the General Assembly unanimously in April, when legislators initially gathered on pandemic issues. It mandates the Aug. 17 start for the traditional school calendar and says "no remote instruction day shall be scheduled prior to August 24."

The law requires five remote instruction days but says systems can add more. That has left some people believing that the week-one prohibition on remote learning applied only to the five required days.

Berger said Wednesday that's not his reading of the law.

The North Carolina School Boards Association brought the issue up this week, as lawmakers gathered again to deal with bills Cooper vetoed over the last two weeks.

"NCSBA respectfully requests that you clarify this point while you are in Raleigh this week," the association told legislators in a letter.

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