14 counties seek authority to require schools to reopen, full-time for in-person instruction

School districts in 14 counties have signed on to House Bill 90, which would allow them the option of providing in-person instruction five-days a week to middle school and high school students.

Currently, students in grades 6-12 can only attend school under the state’s Plan B, which requires six feet of social distancing. To achieve that, districts split students into two cohorts. Each cohort receives face-to-face instruction two days a week.

Rep. Pat McElraft, (R-Carteret), the HB 90 sponsor, told colleagues Tuesday that children are struggling academically and suffering emotionally and mentally in remote learning.

“There’s more drug addiction now,” McElraft said. “There’s more kids getting into trouble. There’re more kids failing. Twenty percent of kids in this group of school districts are failing now.”

Pat McElraft

The district’s elementary school students have been safely attending school in-person, full-time since August, and so have students in the county’s charter schools and private schools, McElrath said.

There has been little transmission of the coronavirus, she said.

“Why can’t we do it in our public schools that we trust so much?” she asked. We’ve got to do this. We’re going to lose our children if we don’t.”

In addition to Carteret County Schools, HB 90 would apply to Beaufort County Schools, Brunswick County Schools, Cleveland County Schools, Craven County Schools, Granville County Schools, Haywood County Schools, Jones County Schools, McDowell County Schools, Mitchell County Schools, Onslow County Schools and Yancey County Schools.

HB 90 started out as a Carteret County-only bill but quickly grew to 14 counties. Fourteen is the limit to remain a local bill.

Proposed Committee Substitute (PCS) was re-referred to the House Committee on Rules.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, (D-Wake), questioned the constitutionality of HB 90. Ball said the State Constitution prohibits local acts that relate to health, sanitation, and nuisance abatement. An earlier version of the bill referred to health guidance provided in StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

The PCS did not reference the Toolkit.

“There is nothing about the Toolkit in the bill at all,” McElrath said. “This is not a healthcare bill it’s an education bill.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The House K-12 Committee’s discussion of HB 90 comes as Gov. Roy Cooper and leaders of the Republican-led General Assembly move toward a compromise on how to reopen schools, nearly one year after Cooper ordered them closed for in-person instruction.

Senate leader Phil Berger discussed the looming compromise during a press conference Tuesday. He told reporters that he and Cooper have had several phone conversations about fully reopening schools.

Meanwhile, Cooper acknowledged ongoing discussion with legislative leaders but would not hint at what a compromise might entail.

“I’ve been talking with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and we are talking about the best way our students can get back into the classroom,” Cooper said. “I think we all share the goal of getting our children back to in-person in the classroom.”

School reopening has been one of the most contentious issues in the long session, even though Democrats and Republicans agree that students are better off academically, socially and emotionally in school.

Senate Leader Phil Berger

Cooper vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill that would require school districts to provide families a full-time, in-person option. The governor argued that Senate Bill 37 didn’t follow state and federal guidance around social distancing. He also complained that it stripped districts of flexibility to change course if there are spikes in COVID-19 infections.

An attempt to override Cooper’s veto was narrowly defeated. Berger has threatened to bring SB 37 back for a second vote but told reporters Tuesday that if Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on reopening schools, the bill would be moot.

HB 90 would also become unnecessary if lawmakers agree on a plan to reopen schools.

In the meantime, parents and students are growing increasingly frustrated with remote learning.

A group of Carteret County parents, students and educators traveled to Raleigh on Tuesday to share their experiences with lawmakers.

William Chadwick, a senior at East Carteret High School, told lawmakers that his mental health and physical health have been tested while he’s been in remote learning.

Academically, Chadwick said it’s difficult to find a rhythm. He thinks being in school five days a week would help all students.

“I’ve got a balanced home life, so I’m able to have that support at home, but think about the kids who don’t have that and are still struggling and not making the grades,” Chadwick said.

Clark Jenkins, chairman of the Carteret County Board of Education, said that his 14-year-old daughter, like thousands across the state, has struggled emotionally while in remote learning.

Jenkins said friends of his daughter reported that she was cutting herself.

“Fortunately, as a dad, I was able to get involved and get her help through the school, through the church and private practice,” Jenkins said. “My daughter represents thousands and thousands of kids in this state who are going through the same thing but don’t have me, don’t have the counselors and don’t have the churches. Please vote for this.”

Christine Hanks, the parent of a Carteret County Schools freshman, said the hybrid model used by older students doesn’t work.

“It sounds like it should be the best of both worlds, right? It’s a good compromise?” Hanks said. “What’s being compromised is our kids’ education and their health and well-being. We need our kids to be in school five days a week. Plan B is a band-aid on a gaping wound.”

Hanks said she trusts local school leaders to make good decisions.

“These are the people I trust, and I don’t take that lightly as a parent,” Hanks said. “I trust them to make the right decisions for my son and our students. They know our community best. They know our educators. They know our students, our schools.”

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