Power struggle over North Carolina schools reopening continues

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, T. Keung Hui
·5 min read
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As the North Carolina state legislature plans another veto override vote to mandate the state’s K-12 public school districts to reopen if they are not already, the governor’s administration on Wednesday released new recommendations to reopen schools.

The Republican-led legislature has pushed for a return to full-time in-person learning options for students. Some schools districts have not had in-person instruction since mid-March 2020. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and most Democratic lawmakers had balked at mandating school districts reopen. Instead, after lawmakers filed a reopening schools bill, the governor urged school districts to offer in-person learning options. Both parties agreed that there should still be a remote instruction option for students.

About 90 of the state’s 115 school districts are already open or planning to open soon for some sort of in-person learning. Senate Bill 37, which would mandate opening options but with less restrictions than Cooper wants, passed both chambers with bipartisan support. But Cooper vetoed it last week, then the Senate failed to override that vote on Monday.

What’s happening with the State Board of Education

State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis said Wednesday that “by the end of this month, we expect all of the public school units in North Carolina are, or will be, returning students to in-person instruction to finish this school year.”

Senate Democrats sent the Board of Education a letter Wednesday afternoon, before the Senate session to reconsider the veto vote, urging the board to “offer all our children, including exceptional children, in-person instruction.”

“We recognize that almost 90 percent of school districts offer or plan to offer in-person learning in the next few weeks. However, we urge the Board of Education to ensure an option is available in all school districts. We believe we can do so given the significant progress we have made against the COVID-19 virus by following the Center for Disease Control guidelines and the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12),” Senate Democrats wrote.

“We also recognize there are still potential challenges. There are reports of new strains of the virus that could set back even the best preparations. ... Even considering such possible challenges and others, we believe offering in-person learning can still work, if done properly.”

Democratic senators also urged the board to do something Cooper wants: allow local and state health officials to change the reopening plans “if warranted.” Cooper said the flexibility was one of the reasons he vetoed SB 37, along with the fact that it would allow Plan A for all K-12 students. The state guidance calls for Plan A, which has minimal social distancing, only for grades K-5 and Plan B, which has six feet of social distancing, for grades 6-12.

DHHS requires in-person school option

Cooper’s administration took the next step Wednesday with updated guidance from the state Department of Health Services that removes the option for school districts and charter schools to stay in Plan C, remote only instruction.

The new guidance says should only use remote instruction “for higher-risk students and for families opting for remote learning for their children..” The guidance says all other students are to be offered in-person instruction.

“Extensive research tells us we can bring students back to the classroom with the right measures in place,” DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, said in a statement. “And students need in-person school not only for academics, but to learn social skills, get reliable meals, and to continue to grow and thrive.”

The new guidelines still limit middle schools and high schools to Plan B. DHHS says older teens are more likely to spread COVID-19 than younger children.

The State Board of Education still needs to vote on the DHHS recommendations on Thursday.

Senate motion

The Senate made a motion Wednesday, with no objections, to reconsider the veto vote because one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Democratic Sen. Ben Clark, was absent during the first override vote. The override vote has not been scheduled yet. According to Senate rules, Republican leaders need to give Democratic leadership 24 hours’ notice of the vote.

Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters after Wednesday’s session that the best way for Democrats to help get students back into school is to vote for the override.

“I think the goal needs to be to get all of our schools into five day a week in person instruction,” Berger said.

Cooper told reporters after getting his first vaccine dose on Wednesday that he talked with lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday.

“And the thing about this issue is that we’re pretty much in agreement. There are some issues of degree that we disagree on, but we should be able to come to an agreement. I believe that our children need to be back in the classroom. We just need to make sure that it is done safely. And we need to make sure that officials have emergency power to deal with things like a variant that could go tearing through populations in schools,” Cooper said.

The governor added that he will continue the conversations.

“I continue to offer the ability to try to come to some kind of agreement on this issue,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of other issues and a big budget to tackle. So you’ve not heard criticism of the Republican leadership in the General Assembly from me because I do want to work with them for a better North Carolina. In the middle of a pandemic we all need to pull together and make sure that we’re heading in the right direction.”

Staff writer Adam Wagner contributed reporting.

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