Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes senate bill that requires school districts to provide in-person instruction

Gov. Roy Cooper

As expected, Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed Senate Bill 37, which requires school districts to provide in-person instruction.

In a statement, Cooper repeated his complaint that SB 37 allows middle school and high school students back into classrooms in violation of state and federal safety guidelines and doesn’t give districts the flexibility to change course during an emergency.

“As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic,” Cooper said. “Therefore, I veto the bill.”

The leadership of the Republican-led General Assembly said it will call for a vote to override the veto.

“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,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican, bill sponsor and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Ballard accused Cooper of bending to the NC Association of Educators (NCAE), which has similar concerns as the governor about SB 37.

“The far-left NCAE owns the Governor’s mansion,” Ballard chided.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said Cooper ignored  ignored “desperate parents, policy experts, and students who are suffering from his refusal to let them return to the classroom.”
“The legislature has worked hard to find common ground with the Governor, but we have a constitutional duty to provide education access to our students and will pursue a veto override on behalf of North Carolina families,” Moore said in a statement. 

An override of Cooper’s veto would require some Democrats to cross the aisle to vote with Republicans. Cooper had until Feb. 27 to act on the bill.

SB 37 has been one of the more controversial bills introduced in the long session with Republicans unanimously backing it as they push to more fully reopen businesses and schools. Backers of the bill say students are suffering irreparable academic and social and emotional damage due to remote learning.

Many Democrats and educators counter that reopening schools for in-person instruction is dangerous until teachers are vaccinated and the coronavirus is under control.

Bill opponents, however, agree with those who support SB 37 that students are better off in classrooms.

“Students learn best in the classroom and I have strongly urged all schools to open safely to in-person instruction and the vast majority of local school systems have done just that,” Cooper said.

Earlier this 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 NCAE applauded Cooper’s veto.

“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,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Cooper’s veto comes just days after North Carolina’s teachers begin to receive vaccinations against COVID-19.

“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,” Walker Kelly said.

The veto came minutes before Cooper’s latest executive order took effect at 5 p.m., easing some pandemic-related restrictions to allow bars, night clubs, movie theaters and sports arenas to increase their capacity.,
Cooper cited lower infection rates and hospitalizations in easing the restrictions but urged state residents to continue to protect themselves against the coronavirus.

A bill to allow more fans at high school sporting events has life despite decision by Gov. Roy Cooper to ease attendance restrictions

Kristy Smith (r)

State Republicans continued to push Wednesday to more fully reopen the state as North Carolina’s rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to fall.

The latest effort came in the form of Senate Bill 116, which would allow more spectators to attend high school outdoor sporting events.

The bill received bipartisan support in a Senate Standing Committee on Education and Higher Education meeting.

If approved, public and nonpublic high schools could allow up to 40% of approved capacity into stadiums, parks, fields or ball courts.

The bill’s supporters got most of what they wanted Wednesday during Gov. Roy Cooper’s afternoon news conference.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The governor agreed to ease several restrictions, including one that limited attendance at outdoor sporting events to 100 people and to 25 people for indoor sporting events.

Cooper’s new Executive Order No. 195 allow attendance at outdoor sporting events to reach 30% capacity of capacity. Indoor events can have the lesser of 250 people or 30% capacity. Indoor arenas with more than 5,000 seats can have 50% of capacity.

“Easing these restrictions will only work if we keep protecting ourselves and others from this deadly virus,” Cooper said. “The order and our own common sense say that health and safety protocols must remain in place.”

Sen. Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican and one of SB 116’s primary sponsors, said the governor’s action did not go far enough.

“I appreciate the governor’s move today [Wednesday], which will provide some immediate relief,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t make much sense to me to allow 50% capacity inside restaurants, where it’s physically impossible to always wear a mask, and allow only 30% capacity at wide open outdoor sports venues. Unless I hear a compelling reason for that difference, I plan to move forward with my bill.”

The bill does not count athletes, school employees, band members or other entertainers or school support staff among spectators that would be allowed under the proposed 40% capacity rule.

SB 116 supporters say the bill is especially important for parents of seniors, many of whom stand to miss their children’s final performances.

Kristy Smith told lawmakers that she won’t be able to attend her son’s away football game Thursday. Only fans of the home team can attend games because of capacity restrictions.

“There’s going to be no pictures,” said Smith, an Alamance  County parent. “There will be no memories captured for me or my son in a season he’s worked hard for since he was six. Among other things he’s been denied as the high school senior, this may be the most disappointing.”

Cooper’s order takes effect Friday. That’s too late for Smith, even if school athletic directors decide to allow the fans of opposing teams to attend games starting Friday.

Smith is disappointed that the order won’t cover the Thursday game. She’s excited, however, about possibly attending future away games.

“It’s a little heartbreaking but I’m encouraged,” she told Policy Watch.

Smith argued that it’s unfair that she can’t attend he son’s game but can eat in restaurants alongside unmasked dinners or sit near unmasked movie-goers.

“As a mother, I respectfully request that you take a moment to consider the impact of denying parents and guardians the right to enjoy the fleeting moments of our children’s lives that have been so greatly impacted and robbed of so much by this virus,” Smith said.

Meanwhile,  Johnson complained that the definition of healthy has erroneously become the “absence” of COVID-19.

“That is the furthest thing from the truth,” Johnson said. “Living in a house that has two teenage boys, I see firsthand that there is a lot more to being healthy than just not having COVID.”

He said the physical, mental and social well-being of children are being ignored amid efforts to protect them from the coronavirus.

Committee Democrats supported the bill but did ask whether it was drafted in coordination with the N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

Johnson said he had not consulted with NCHSAA. But he said he hasn’t heard about any opposition to the bill coming from the organization that oversees high school athletics in North Carolina.

Johnson said he didn’t consult with NCDHSS, either. Instead, he relied on information about COVID-19 transmission that’s available to the public.

He said it’s reasonable to assume that attending an outdoor sporting event at 40% capacity is safer than eating in a restaurant at 50% capacity where patrons are potentially transmitting the virus while “chewing, laughing, spitting, [or] coughing.”

Johnson noted a recent report about the NFL season, which found that teams safely played games before fans in stadiums with occupancy restrictions in place.

“Throughout the entire NFL season, with many of the venues being open, not including the Carolina Panthers, keep that in mind when we’re doing budgeting, the number of revenue and the amount of revenue that we’ve lost for a lot of important projects, during the entire NFL season there were a total of zero super spreader events related to these outdoor venues,” Johnson said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, supports athletic competition, but said the state must move cautiously due to new variants of the coronavirus and the reluctance of some people to wear masks.

“I want us to pay attention to that,” Robinson said. “We want to continue to get this [infection] rate down in North Carolina so people can return fully to regular activities.”

Republicans have wasted little time introducing bills to nudge Cooper toward easing restrictions so that the state can more quickly resume business as usual.

The more important and most controversial of the bill is Senate Bill 37, that would require all school districts to provide an option for in-person instruction.

Republicans approved the bill along with a handful of Democrats.

Cooper is expected to veto the bill although he has “strongly” encouraged districts to reopen for in person instruction. He contends SB 37  doesn’t require districts to follow state and federal safety guidance and strips them of the flexibility needed to respond to emergencies.

Cooper doubled down on that position when asked about the bill Wednesday. He said he would sign legislation requiring in person instruction if lawmakers addressed his two concerns.

The governor has until Saturday to veto the bill. If he does nothing, it will become law.

Gov. Roy Cooper seeks new school reopening legislation that he can support

Gov. Roy Cooper

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.”

Senate bill to reopen schools gets a nod, headed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk

Image: Adobe Stock

The House approved Senate Bill 37 requiring school districts to provide in-person instruction in a 77-42 vote Wednesday. The controversial legislation is now on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

SB 37 won’t receive a warm reception.

The governor issued a statement in advance of the House’s vote saying that he wouldn’t approve the legislation.

“Children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement. “This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.”

Eight Democrats joined 69 Republicans to approve the measure.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill requires all school districts to provide in-person instruction. However, students who prefer to remain in remote learning would be able to do so.

SB 37 was approved 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.

That change was made by a conference committee hashing out the differences between the House and Senate versions on the bill.

The approval of SB 37 comes as President Joe Biden pushes to reopen the nation’s K-8 classrooms for in-person instruction five days a week within the first 100 days of his administration.

Supporters of reopening schools, including Cooper, contend that doing so will slow learning loss they fear will impact students’ success beyond classrooms and cripple the nation’s economy. The House approval of SB 37 came less than an hour after House Speaker Tim Moore lobbied colleagues to support  House Bill 82, which would require school districts to offer six weeks of learning recovery and enrichment programs after the regular school year ends.

“I hope every member of the House votes for it,” Moore said. “I don’t know anyone who thinks that the children in this state ae getting the education that they need right now with just a virtual environment.”

Schools are also say needed to provide meals to children for students in low-income families and to improve the social and emotional well-being of students, many of whom have been in remote learning since schools closed in mid-March, supporters say.

But teachers and parents are afraid that sending teachers and students back into school buildings could prove deadly. That fear exists despite studies that show schools are not big spreaders of the coronavirus and new safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC said schools can safely reopen amid the pandemic if they enforce 6 feet of physical distancing inside school buildings where possible, mandate face masks, clean facilities and contract trace. The level of COVID-19 transmission in a community should also factor into the reopening decisions, the CDC said.

The NC Association of Educators has pointed to the CDC’s new guidance as a reason for Cooper to veto the bill, which requires K-12 schools to reopen under the state’s Plan A (minimal social distancing), Pan B (moderate social distancing) or a combination of the two.

The NCAE argues that the state’s reopening Plan A does not set a 6 feet social distancing goal for older children as recommended by the CDC.

“All plans to reopen our schools during a pandemic should include a goal of six feet of social distancing,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a recent statement. “We need six feet, and anything less gives us concern for the safety of our students and educators.”

Walker Kelly said SB 37 is at odds with CDC guidance.

“This risky bill would allow North Carolina middle and high schools to fully reopen without six feet of social distancing to protect students from COVID-19,” she said. “This bill flies in the face of this new CDC guidance.”

Many families across the state acknowledge that in-person instruction is best for children, but they worry about teacher and student safety.

Heidi Bell, a Durham Public Schools teacher who lives in Orange County, says the thought of returning to the school where she works keeps her up at night.

“My family is frustrated and perplexed by what this bill means for our local schools,” Bell told Policy Watch.

She’s simultaneously worried about returning to work for in-person instruction and sending her two children back into high school classrooms in Orange County.

Bell acknowledges that remote learning has been tough on many students, including her own.

“This fall was tough and there were times we had to remind ourselves we were in a pandemic,” Bell wrote on the Durham Association of Educators’ Facebook page. “My own children who had never failed a class before were anxious and barely passing some classes. There were many mental and social-emotional sacrifices and strains.”

But in recent weeks, Bell said her children have made adjustments to improve the remote learning experience.

“Unfortunately changing course this late in year will not help anyone,” Bell wrote. “I know there are families that are still struggling and I completely understand, I promise this fall was hard for us. We faced things as a family that were unimaginably difficult. And if I thought that the new plans were going to improve the quality of education for our students while keeping everyone safe, I would completely be ready to send my kids back to school.”

State lawmakers prepared to vote on school reopening bill after conference committee tweaks

Tim Moore

House Speaker Tim Moore said Tuesday that the conference committee tweaking Senate Bill 37, which would require school districts to provide in-person instruction, has reached agreement on the legislation.

Speaking at a press conference, Moore said the House and the Senate could vote on Senate Bill 37 as early as Wednesday.

A provision that would require teachers opting out of in-person instruction to provide a doctor’s note documenting an underlying condition that makes them or a family member more susceptible to serious illness or death from the virus is the only notable change, the speaker said.

“I think there’s been some tweaks to that language,” Moore said. “I think now it’s [SB 37] tracking some other language that talks about where the person can basically self-identify as being at risk as opposed to requiring a doctor’s note.”

The bill was massaged to ensure compliance with federal laws such as the American With Disabilities Act (ADA), Moore said. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations and other areas.

“What was done with the modified language was to take some of that and incorporate it into the bill to make it very clear that those exceptions would be there for those folks who are at risk,” Moore said.

The bill has been approved in the House and Senate with the help of several Democrats. Republicans would need help from Democrats to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper.

“My hope is that the governor [Cooper] will sign this bill,” Moore said. “The governor held a press conference where he said he wanted children back in school, and so this bill does that. This bill, in a safe way, would put children back in school, back for in-classroom instruction where appropriate and with the appropriate social distancing guidelines.”

Moore made his comments during a press conference held to roll out House Bill 82, which would require school districts to offer six weeks of learning recovery and enrichment programs after the regular school year ends.

Summer Learning Choice for Families” — would also require “innovative” and frequent testing throughout the school year to assess student learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It amends the state’s Benchmark assessments law and mandates more testing in “certain grades and core subject areas to allow teachers to more frequently measure students learning and address student learning loss throughout the school year.”

“An innovative benchmark assessment shall provide for educator flexibility, assessments aligned with the standard course of study, and actionable data for teachers, schools, and local school administrative units,” HB 82 said.

Jeffrey Elmore (R-Wilkes); John Torbett (R-Gaston) and Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth) are also sponsors of the measure.