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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill Friday that would have required the state’s K-12 public school districts to offer in-person learning again, after nearly a year of remote learning for some students.
“As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic. Therefore, I veto the bill,” Cooper said.
The Senate is already planning an override vote.
The bill would require schools to reopen in-person the first weekday 15 days after it became law. Most school districts already offer in-person learning, but some had paused it after winter break, and others never opened in person at all this school year. Charter schools were not included in the bill.
The state legislature sent Cooper Senate Bill 37 on Feb. 17, and the governor had a deadline of 10 days to take action. That deadline was Feb. 27 to sign, veto or let it become law without his signature. Now the only way for the bill to become law is if both the House and the Senate override it.
Senate Republican leadership blamed the N.C. Association of Educators, which opposed the bill, for the veto.
Senate leader Phil Berger said in a tweet that “education policy should be driven by the best interests of children” not the NCAE.
“We will bring an override vote to the floor,” Berger tweeted.
Cooper had signaled for some time that he did support the bill, preferring instead to urge districts to offer in-person, rather than requiring it.
He said the bill veers from the state’s current public health guidance for schools. The bill calls for Plan A’s minimal social distancing for K-5 only, and Plan B, which requires six feet of social distancing, for grades 6-12.
He also said he would like for school districts to have local control of their schedules, in case a new surge in coronavirus cases forces schools to scale back in-person instruction.
In Cooper’s statement Friday, he again highlighted those concerns, saying the bill “falls short.”
Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican who is co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and the bill’s sponsor, said with teacher vaccinations underway, there is “no legitimate excuse for Gov. Cooper and the far-left NCAE to oppose the broad reopening flexibility this bill grants to school districts.”
NCAE pushed for teachers and school staff to be moved up in the state’s vaccination priorities. Cooper announced earlier this month that educators would be the first group of front-line essential workers to start receiving the vaccine on Feb. 24, with the rest of front-line essential workers starting March 10.
Many teachers and staff as well as childcare workers received their first vaccinations this week. North Carolinians with underlying health conditions are in the next phase. The state’s first phase of vaccinations was health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, followed by people age 65 and older.
“At the same time the Governor boasts of teacher vaccinations after giving them a higher priority than cancer patients, he vetoes this school reopening bill because it offers school districts the flexibility to operate under the plan that best suits their on-the-ground needs,” Ballard said in a statement emailed to The News & Observer.
“Thankfully, Senate Bill 37 passed with enough bipartisan support to override Gov. Cooper’s veto, and we expect to bring it up for an override vote,” Ballard said.
What the governor said
Most school districts have already had months of in-person instruction, but about 20 of the state’s 115 school districts have been remote-only all school year so far.
Cooper told reporters at a recent press conference that he could sign different legislation “or let this run its course.” The legislature has not passed a different schools reopening bill.
Multiple versions of the bill passed both the Senate and House with bipartisan support — enough to override a veto. Republican lawmakers urged colleagues to support it given the impact of remote-only instruction on some children’s mental health as well as taking into account the latest guidance and studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To override a veto, a three-fifths supermajority is needed. Cooper is a Democrat. The bill is Republican-sponsored, and the General Assembly has a Republican majority in each chamber, but not a supermajority.
The NCAE released a statement in support of the governor’s veto.
“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, but SB 37 is the opposite of a safe return to in-person instruction,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in an emailed statement.
“By attempting to pre-empt the decision-making authority of local school boards and ignoring the latest scientific guidance, this bill would have needlessly endangered the health and safety of educators and students. The best action all legislators can take right now is to encourage their communities to comply with the safety protocols and to encourage the vaccination of all school employees,” Kelly said.
SB 37 requires a Plan A available to K-12 special needs students and for local districts to decided whether to open K-12 schools as Plan A or B. Remote-only is still an option for all students. The bill just required there to be an in-person option as well.
North Carolina is under a statewide mask mandate, and everyone in a school building is required to wear a mask.
This week, Cooper lifted some of the state’s coronavirus restrictions, including ending a curfew and allowing for added capacity in bars as well as athletic event venues.
The final version of the bill added a provision for local school districts to create plans to address alternative work assignments for teachers who are at high risk for COVID-19, and give the same options for those who are caretakers of children at higher risk.
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Spotify. Apple Podcasts. Stitcher. iHeartRadio. Amazon Music, Megaphone or wherever you get your podcasts.