Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson to create task force to root out ‘indoctrination’ of students in schools

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

Last month, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson made strident arguments against adoption of new state social studies standards that he said are “political in nature” and unfairly portray America as “systemically racist.”

The State Board of Education approved the new standards despite Robinson’s objection. The standards direct educators to include diverse perspectives in history lessons. Schools will begin using the new standards in the fall.

Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro and the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, isn’t finished fighting against what he says is the indoctrination of children by liberal educators.

He announced Monday that he will create a new task force titled “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” (F.A.C.T.S.) to give students, teachers and parents a “voice to speak out about cases of bias, inappropriate material, or indoctrination they see or experience in public schools.”

In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Robinson said the task force will be made up of education professionals.

“It [the task force] will seek to compile and assess legitimate reports from across the state, assist those who need help navigating the bureaucratic process surrounding education, and provide a platform to disseminate information regarding indoctrination in public schools,” Robinson said.

The lieutenant governor has scheduled a press conference to discuss the task force Tuesday at 2 p.m., on the front steps of Hawkins Hartness House at 310 N. Blount Street in Raleigh.

Gov. Roy Cooper signs Senate Bill 220 requiring school districts to offer in-person instruction

 Gov. Roy Cooper

This story has been updated

Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 220 requiring school districts to offer in-person instruction to K-12 students.

SB 220 (The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021) was introduced by Republican and Democratic lawmakers Wednesday as a compromise to what had become a contentious, partisan disagreement over when and how to reopen schools for in-person instruction.

“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement late Thursday.

The law requires districts to provide in-person instruction for students in grades K-5 under the state’s Plan A, requiring minimal social distancing.

Students in grades 6-12 would attend school either under Plan A, Plan B requiring six feet of social distancing or both.

Plan A must also be offered to students who have an Individualized Education Program or a 504 plan, which covers any condition that limits students from participating in daily activities.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), sponsored the bill.

The compromise to reopen schools for in-person instruction comes nearly a year after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered them closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many students have struggled in remote learning and parents have pushed lawmakers to reopen schools for in-person learning.

This week, 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.

The NC Association of Educators (NCAE) criticized the legislation Wednesday.

“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.

Last month, Cooper strongly urged school districts to move to in-person instruction.

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.

Republicans’ attempt to override Cooper’s veto was narrowly defeated.

Democrats, Republicans reach compromise on reopening schools

Gov. Roy Cooper

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.

Senate Leader Phil Berger

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.

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. Read more

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.”

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.”