Superintendent Mark Johnson upset over revisions to social distancing requirements on school buses

State Superintendent Mark Johnson charged this week that a lack of communication and transparency has resulted in “confusing” and “inconsistent” school reopening guidelines.

Johnson made the complaint Tuesday in an email to Gov. Roy Cooper following a Council of State meeting.

His criticism was directed at State Board of Education Chairman  Eric Davis and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services officials who Johnson said reduced social distancing requirements on elementary school buses without his input or the input of the SBE.

“I will continue to work with you [Cooper] and the State Board of Education in a bipartisan spirit during this crisis, but our work should be done in a clear, transparent manner,” Johnson said.

The initial plan required social distancing of at least 6 feet between riders and that bus occupancy be reduced to no greater than 50%.

The revision allows one person per seat with exceptions granted to riders from the same household. It also requires driver and riders to wear face masks.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

“Initially, social distancing was required on school buses but revisions to Plan B … significantly reduced social distancing requirements on buses with no explanation and no requirement for elementary school childen to wear face covering,” Johnson said. “Now, instead of one student every six feet in an enclosed school bus, there could be at least one child in every seat, putting students only one to two feet apart.”

Mandy Cohen, secretary of NCDHHS, fired back in a letter to Johnson that the revision does maintain social distancing and also adds the requirement that students wear face masks.

“Your statement that the revised transportation guidance ‘now places students very close together for prolonged periods of time in enclosed spaces without face coverings’ is inaccurate,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen explained that Davis requested the revisions after receiving feedback from district superintendents cocnerned that the original requirement for social distancing on school buses would have permitted only eight students on buses built to carry 72 passengers.

Secretary Mandy Cohen

“Given the requested modification both maintained social distancing and added the requirement that face coverings be used for all drivers and riders, NCDHHS agreed to the requested change,” Cohen said.

In his email, Johnson appeared to take a jab at Cooper, who has said he will “rely on the science, the data and the facts” when deciding when and how to reopen the state.

“I’m requesting an explanation of the science that supports this significant change in policy,” Johnson said.

There’s irony in the nature and the timing of Johnson’s complaint, particularly as it applies to his criticism of Davis. It comes as the SBE prepares to consider a new policy that spells out the superintendent’s “communications and reporting obligations” to the board.

The proposed policy states, for example, that SBE “must be informed of communications from the Superintendent of the Department (N.C. Department of Public Instruction) to Board constituents or state or federal officials on matters concerning public education.”

The policy also directs the superintendent to share drafts of reports due to state or federal agencies and not to “limit or interfere with the Board’s or its staff’s ability to freely send and receive information and communications to and from Board constituents and state and federal officials.”

And it requires the superintendent to submit reports required by state or federal law to the Board no later than five business days before a final version is due, among many other such requirements. The Board is expected to discuss the proposed policy at its board meeting on Thursday.

Johnson has been at odds with the SBE over his duties and responsibilities since he took office in January 2017.

The Republican-led General Assembly transfered some of the SBE’s powers to the superintendent. That led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to Johnson.

Johnson did not seek reelection. He is in the final months of his tenure as superintendent.


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Superintendent Mark Johnson upset over revisions to social distancing requirements on school buses