An attempt to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a controversial bill requiring schools to provide an in-person instruction option failed Monday on a 29-20 vote, one short of what was needed to send it to the House.
Senate Bill 37 had passed the Senate and the House with help from Democrats, but two of the three senate Democrats who sided with Republicans changed their minds.
Sen. Kirk deViere, (D-Cumberland), was the only Democratic senator who voted with Republicans to override the veto.
Sen. Paul Lowe, (D-Forsyth) and Sen. Ben Clark, (D-Cumberland) had also joined Republicans to pass the legislation, but Lowe announced earlier on Twitter that he’d vote to sustain the veto.
“After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the governor’s veto,” Lowe tweeted. “Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”
Senate leader Phil Berger called out the two Democrats who changed their minds after first voting with Republicans to approve SB 37. (Clark did not attend the session to vote.)
Berger said no changes were made to the bill after the two voted in favor of it last month.
The bill required school districts to provide in-person instruction for special needs students and an in-person option for other students.
“All of the issues that are being referred to as concerns about this bill were laid out there at that time, yet folks were willing to vote for the bill,” Berger said. “I would hope that once someone votes a particular way and their constituents know how they voted that they would stick with that and not allow politics rather than science control what they’re doing.”
Berger warned that not reopening schools for in-person instruction could prove disastrous for many students.
“We know that the current situation is damaging children,” Berger said. “No one has said that the current situation is not damaging children, and it’s damaging in ways that in some respect may be irreparable for some of those children.”
Berger said suicides, poor mental health will continue to be major problems if students aren’t allowed to return to classrooms.
He said high school students failing courses or third graders not being able to read at grade level can lead to lifelong struggles that render students unable to care for themselves as adults.
Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake County), acknowledged that students are suffering academically, emotionally and mentally as a result of many schools being closed for in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Blue said it’s critical that North Carolina continues to take a “careful approach” to reopen the state, including schools.
“As a result of that deliberate leadership, North Carolina is in a better position than many other states,” Blue said. “We want to take that same careful approach getting kids back into the classroom.”
Cooper issued a statement earlier Monday restating his reasons for vetoing the legislation.
He said the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on social distancing.
“SB 37 also removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools,” Cooper said.
Cooper said he’s asked legislative leaders to compromise on those issues.
“I will continue talking with legislators and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe,” Cooper said
The governor has “strongly urged” school districts to provide in-person instruction. Last month, 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 question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person. They absolutely should.,” Cooper said. “The question is whether we do it safely.”
Before the senate vote, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a bill co-sponsor and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, took issue with Cooper’s claim that SB 37 doesn’t follow social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ballard said the CDC guidelines ask school districts to promote social distancing of at least six feet. She said it’s not a mandate.
“I think the CDC is well aware that sometimes the schools are not in a position where they can do the suggested social distancing,” she said.
Ballard noted that the guidelines prioritize in-person instruction over extra-curricular activities such as team sports.
“If it’s safe enough for soccer, it’s safe enough for math,” Ballard said.
She noted that there’s an increase in teen suicide since schools have been closed to in-person instruction.
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators tweeted that she looks forward to seeing Ballard “advocate for legislative action of increasing mental health and student support services in this session.”