Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper sought to clarify why he does not support Senate Bill 37, which would require all school districts to offer in-person instruction.
The governor opposes the bill because it allows older children to return to classrooms without following recommended social distancing guidelines and it doesn’t give local and state officials the flexibility to respond to emergencies.
“Suppose this [new] variant [of the virus] causes significant problems and you have in the legislation that students still have to be in person in the classroom and you take away the authority of state and local officials to be able to respond to those emergencies,” Cooper said. “That’s not a good thing.”
The bill was approved this week by House and Senate Republicans with the help of a handful of Democrats.
Cooper said that he will push for new school reopening legislation to address concerns he has about SB 37.
“I can sign a piece of legislation with those two requirements; that the guidelines be followed and that the state and local emergency authority not be hampered,” Cooper said. “I would hope that they could send another piece of legislation or just let this run its course because I think most of the local school boards are taking action.”
Cooper said that 91 of 115 school districts have returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will be in-person learning by mid-March, he said.
The governor said he will continue to encourage remaining school districts to reopen for in-person instruction and to follow recommended safety guidelines.
He did not say whether he will veto the bill.
“I will continue to discuss potential new legislation with General Assembly leaders before taking action on the bill I now have on my desk,” Cooper said.
The governor has until Feb. 28 to act on SB 37. His options are to sign it, veto it, or let it become law after 10 days without his signature. Republicans will need some Democrats to vote with them to override a veto.
Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and a primary sponsor of SB 37, urged Cooper to quickly veto the legislation or sign the bill.
“If a veto is coming, then do it now so the legislature can vote to override,” Ballard said in a statement. “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 just so he can tell the far-left NCAE [NC Association of Educators] he didn’t attach his signature to it.”
The NCAE has opposed the bill largely on the same grounds as Cooper; that it doesn’t follow recommended social distancing guidelines for older children and strips state and local officials of flexibility to address changing COVID-10 metrics.
Th House and Senate approve SB 37 without the requirement that teachers opting out of in-person instruction present a doctor’s note to document underlying conditions that place them at “high risk” of serious illness or death if they contract the disease. Now, teachers will be able to “self-identify” as high-risk if the bill becomes law.
A conference committee hashing out the differences between the House and Senate versions on the bill agreed on that change.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt issued a statement late Wednesday in support of SB 37, contending that the bill follows recommended safety guidance and provides local “discretion” in reopening.
“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,” Truitt said. “This is a win for students, parents and districts across the state.”