After weeks of contentious debate, state Democrats and Republicans came to a meeting of the minds Wednesday on a plan to more fully reopen North Carolina’s public schools.
The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation today. The House could also take the bill up as early as today. The goal is for the bill to become law as soon as possible.
“This compromise bill represents an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to all agree on a process moving forward,” House Speaker Tim Moore, (R-Cleveland), said during a press conference.
The legislation will take effect 21 days after it’s signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
“With the track that it looks like it’s on, that means it’s probably around April 1,” Cooper said.
The legislation requires elementary schools to open under the state’s Plan A. That plan calls for in-person instruction, five days a week.
Meanwhile, middle schools and high schools could open under either Plan A or Plan B.
Districts must follow state and federal guidelines under Plan B, so many of them have split older students into cohorts. Each cohort attends school for in-person instruction two days a week in order to observe social distancing guidelines.
To open middle schools and high schools under Plan A, districts must notify the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and share their plan to reopen schools full-time for older students.
“The purpose here is to provide for consultation,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham).
Berger noted that NCDHHS would not have the authority to veto a district’s move to Plan A. Cooper, however, would have the authority to close a district to in-person instruction, but only on a district-by-district basis, he said.
“A local district will also retain the authority to close a school or a classroom in the event of an outbreak,” Berger said.
The NC Association of Educators (NCAE) quickly criticized the legislation. The teacher advocacy group has said that districts must require six feet of social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for all teachers and students to return to classrooms safely.
“This agreement between the governor and leaders in the state legislature will needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators, and staff into school buildings that do not comply with CDC guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.
Walker Kelly said educators will watch closely to see if lawmakers’ professed concern about the well-being of students is reflected in the state budget.
“If the social and emotional needs of students are as important a priority to legislative leaders as their comments suggested today, we are looking forward to the immediate reversal of the decade of declining funding for school counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and teacher assistants,” she said. “Anything less would lay bare the partisan hypocrisy of justifying a politically expedient return [to] in-person instruction with the emotional needs of our own students.”
The new legislation requires districts that move middle school students and high school students to Plan A to partner with the ABC Science Collaborative so researchers can collect and analyze data from those districts.
Researchers from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill make up the Science Collaborative. Last year, the group evaluated secondary transmission of COVID-19 in 11 North Carolina school districts and found transmissions in those schools much lower than the rate of community spread.
“The partnership this bill creates between local districts and the ABC Science Collaborative will be beneficial for those districts but will also likely produce rich analysis that can inform policies across the country,” Berger said. “North Carolina can be a national leader in reopening schools and producing world-class analysis to enable other states to follow suit.”
Berger said the state will allocate $500,000 so that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction can contract with the Science Collaborative to fund the data collection and review.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt hailed the bipartisan support for reopening schools as a win for students.
“Today’s decision is about restoring choice to parents and students as well as providing greater flexibility to school districts,” Truitt said. “Today is about putting our students first. I’m glad to see the science prevail and grateful to see state leaders come together and transcend party lines for the sake of our students.”
State Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake), called the compromise a national example of how to make democratic, representative government work to benefit citizens.
“I’m encouraged that we’re up here today because of the shared efforts of the executive branch and the legislative branch, and the shared efforts between Democrats and Republicans to do the right thing for all of North Carolina’s students, educators and all of those involved in the education process,” Blue said.
The move to fully reopen schools comes a year after Cooper signed an executive order to close them to in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some parents report that their children have experienced success in remote learning, but the consensus among the experts is that children are better off academically, mentally and emotionally attending school in person.
Remote learning has harmed children despite the heroic efforts of parents and educators, Cooper said.
“They weren’t able to learn, grow and thrive the way that we know that they should,” Cooper said.
On Tuesday, a group of parents, students and educators from Carteret County shared their remote learning hardships with the House Committee on K-12 Education. The committee was considering House Bill 90 that would give Carteret County Schools and 13 others authority to provide all students full-time, in-person instruction.
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.
Last month, Cooper strongly urged school districts to move to in-person instruction.
The governor, however, 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.
Republicans’ attempt to override Cooper’s veto was narrowly defeated. Berger had threatened to bring SB 37 back for a second vote, but Wednesday’s development should render the bill moot.
HB 90 should also be unnecessary as a result of Wednesday’s bipartisan effort to reopen schools.
The compromise was applauded in some quarters.
It’s an encouraging sign that state leaders can work together on issues critical to the well-being of North Carolina’s children, said Keith Poston, president of the WakeEd Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for Wake County students and educators in Wake County.
“Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a series of tough decisions for our leaders,” Poston said in a statement. “One of the most difficult of those decisions has been how to handle in-person instruction for pre-K-12 students and none of the choices were popular or universally equitable.”