Senate Democrats, Republicans continue to squabble over school reopening bill

Jay Chaudhuri

Nearly two dozen Senate Democrats have signed a letter asking the State Board of Education (SBE) to use its influence to convince school districts to offer students an in-person learning option.

The letter is addressed to SBE Chairman Eric Davis. It comes two days after Senate Democrats narrowly turned back an attempt by Republicans to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37, which would have required all districts to provide in-person learning opportunities.

The letter was sent by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County.

“We recognize that almost 90 percent of school districts offer or plan to offer in-person learning in the next few weeks,” the letter said. “However, we urge the Board of Education to ensure an option is available in all school districts.”

The veto override of SB 37 failed on a 29-20 vote, one shy of the votes Republicans needed to override Cooper’s veto.

Two Democratic senators who supported SB 37 but changed their minds were among the senators who signed the letter. One of them, Sen. Paul Lowe of Forsyth County, voted against the veto override.

The other Democrat, Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County, is a bill cosponsor. He requested and received a leave of absence from the Monday session where the override vote took place.

Dan Blue

But oddly, on Tuesday, Republicans cited Clark’s absence as the reason for a new vote on the veto override. A motion to reconsider the vote passed Wednesday and the bill will be placed on the Senate calendar for consideration at a later date.

“If Sen. [Ben] Clark were present and maintained his support for the bill that bears his name, the veto override would have passed,” Senate leader Phil Berger explained Tuesday on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop. “If the motion to reconsider the veto override is successful, Sen. Clark will have the opportunity to provide the critical vote necessary to advance his bill over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.”

Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said Democrats and Republicans should be working together on a school reopening bill. 

“If Republicans are serious about getting kids back into the classroom safely, they will stop the political charade and work with us to pass a bill that the governor will sign,” Blue said.

Eric Davis

Meanwhile, Davis told his SBE colleagues that he expects all districts to provide students an in-person learning option by the end of the month.

“We expect all of the public school units in North Carolina are or will be returning students to in-person instruction to finish this school year while managing the needed safety protocols to keep students and educators safe,” Davis said during the board’s monthly meeting.

The Senators who signed he letter said they believe schools can reopen safely because “significant progress” has been made against the COVID-19 virus by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and those in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

They acknowledged challenges remain due to the emergence of new strains of the virus.

“Even considering such possible challenges and others, we believe offering in-person learning can still work, if done properly,” the letter said. “First, we urge you to adhere to the state and federal health guidelines, including following social distancing requirements.”

Cooper vetoed SB 37 because the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and CDC guidelines on social distancing. He said it would also strip districts of the flexibility needed to quickly change course if a new COVID variant hit schools and force them to revert to remote learning.

The senators who signed the letter gave similar reasons for not supporting SB 37.

“We urge the Board of Education to craft guidance with the foresight and precautions this COVID-19 pandemic demands,” the letter said. “We believe the State Board of Education stands in a prime position to urge our local school boards to offer in-person learning to all students.”

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