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

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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.”

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