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

White teachers urged to use privilege responsibly in fight to keep Durham schools in remote learning

Ronda Bullock

In Durham, plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction continues to play out in dramatic fashion.

This week, Ronda Bullock, chair of education committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People took white, female educators to task for acting like “damsels in distress” and for reacting angrily to the Durham school board’s racially split vote to reopen schools for in-person instruction.

The board’s five Black members voted in favor of reopening schools for young children on March 15.  It’s two white members voted against the plan.

Like most school districts in North Carolina and across the nation, Durham’s teachers are majority white. Most students in the district are Black and Hispanic.

Bullock said she understood teachers’ frustration and anger, but felt some of the comments on social media crossed the line.

“What I witnessed in the aftermath of the vote … was white women educators fuming and unraveling through social media,” Bullock wrote in a Facebook post titled “Dear White Women Educators.”

Bullock urged white teachers to use their privilege responsibly. She said the teachers’ outrage could endanger Black school board members.

“You all have inherited a legacy of white racial violence, and our public conscience is set up to come to your defense,” Bullock wrote. “You need to realize the power of your public outrage, whether or not it’s justified, whether or not it’s rooted in reality.”

Bullock suspects district leaders and school board members received lots of negative email after the controversial vote.

“No, you are not solely responsible for those, but you are culpable for your part,” she said. “Your public outrage at our 5 POC [People of Color] board members is dangerous, and it needs to be checked before someone is hurt. It only takes one extremist reading your posts to feel justified in restoring your honor and safety through some targeted act of violence against our board members.”

Earlier, this year the school board voted to remain in remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Teachers don’t want to return to in-person instruction until educators and school staffs are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

They did not take the news well about reopening schools, Bullock said.

“People demanded the names of the board members, and many were ready to “vote them out,” Bullock wrote. “White teachers even lamented that the board members wanted them to die. Maybe in a race-neutral society, this would seem like righteous indignation, but we don’t live in a race-neutral society. This is America. Race is ever present.”

Teachers who responded on Bullock’s Facebook page received the message well. Many of them asked how they should have responded differently.

“I truly believe that just like when a child is reprimanded for a certain behavior it is important to support them in a replacement/alternate behavior,” one teacher responded.

In an interview with Policy Watch, Bullock said she’s not out to “vilify” white teachers, and that white teachers must figure out what they did wrong and how to respond differently next time.

“White educators need to sit with the discomfort of this letter and wrestle with how they can show up differently,” Bullock said. “It takes time be reflective and they have the capacity to come up with their own solutions as a community regarding how they can show up better next time.”

The school board and educators must keep students at the center of their decision-making, Bullock said.

“Some students are doing well in virtual learning and feel safest there,” she said. “Some students are not doing well (lots of mental health concerns here). Those who are doing well get to stay virtual and those who aren’t, will get the option to attend in person, safely.”

The State Board of Education will receive a report Wednesday on statewide school test results that shows students have struggled academically learning remotely.

The board’s vote to return to classrooms for in-person instruction was largely in response to Senate Bill 37, which would have required all North Carolina school districts to provide an option of in-person instruction.

The Senate’s Republican leadership was unable to garner enough votes Monday to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the school reopening bill, so it is no longer an issue.

The Durham school board will  meet this afternoon to discuss school reopening. The Durham Association of Educators wants the board to consider a return to in-person instruction on April 8, the date middle school students and high school students would return classrooms. The delay would give teachers and staff members more time to be vaccinated.

“Some of you may get angry,” Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “And that is okay. Leadership is hard and being in leadership one has to make tough decisions that not everyone will agree with.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of school reopening bill survives Republican override attempt

An attempt to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a controversial bill requiring schools to provide an in-person instruction option failed Monday on a 29-20 vote, one short of what was needed to send it to the House.

Senate Bill 37 had passed the Senate and the House with help from Democrats, but two of the three senate Democrats who sided with Republicans changed their minds.

Sen. Kirk deViere, (D-Cumberland), was the only Democratic senator who voted with Republicans to override the veto.

Sen. Paul Lowe, (D-Forsyth) and Sen. Ben Clark, (D-Cumberland) had also joined Republicans to pass the legislation, but Lowe announced earlier on Twitter that he’d vote to sustain the veto.

“After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the governor’s veto,” Lowe tweeted. “Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

Senate leader Phil Berger called out the two Democrats who changed their minds after first voting with Republicans to approve SB 37. (Clark did not attend the session to vote.)

Berger said no changes were made to the bill after the two voted in favor of it last month.

The bill required school districts to provide in-person instruction for special needs students and an in-person option for other students.

“All of the issues that are being referred to as concerns about this bill were laid out there at that time, yet folks were willing to vote for the bill,” Berger said. “I would hope that once someone votes a particular way and their constituents know how they voted that they would stick with that and not allow politics rather than science control what they’re doing.”

Berger warned that not reopening schools for in-person instruction could prove disastrous for many students.

“We know that the current situation is damaging children,” Berger said. “No one has said that the current situation is not damaging children, and it’s damaging in ways that in some respect may be irreparable for some of those children.”

Berger said suicides, poor mental health will continue to be major problems if students aren’t allowed to return to classrooms.

He said high school students failing courses or third graders not being able to read at grade level can lead to lifelong struggles that render students unable to care for themselves as adults.

Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake County), acknowledged that students are suffering academically, emotionally and mentally as a result of many schools being closed for in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Blue said it’s critical that North Carolina continues to take a “careful approach” to reopen the state, including schools.

“As a result of that deliberate leadership, North Carolina is in a better position than many other states,” Blue said. “We want to take that same careful approach getting kids back into the classroom.”

Cooper issued a statement earlier Monday restating his reasons for vetoing the legislation.

He said the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on social distancing.

“SB 37 also removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he’s asked legislative leaders to compromise on those issues.

“I will continue talking with legislators and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe,” Cooper said

The governor has “strongly urged” school districts to provide in-person instruction. Last month, Cooper said that 91 of 115 school districts have returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will be in-person learning by mid-March, he said.

“The question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person. They absolutely should.,” Cooper said. “The question is whether we do it safely.”

Before the senate vote, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a bill co-sponsor and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, took issue with Cooper’s claim that SB 37 doesn’t follow social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ballard said the CDC guidelines ask school districts to promote social distancing of at least six feet. She said it’s not a mandate.

“I think the CDC is well aware that sometimes the schools are not in a position where they can do the suggested social distancing,” she said.

Ballard noted that the guidelines prioritize in-person instruction over extra-curricular activities such as team sports.

“If it’s safe enough for soccer, it’s safe enough for math,” Ballard said.

She noted that there’s an increase in teen suicide since schools have been closed to in-person instruction.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators tweeted that she looks forward to seeing Ballard “advocate for legislative action of increasing mental health and student support services in this session.”

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes Senate bill that requires school districts to provide in-person instruction

Gov. Roy Cooper

As expected, Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed Senate Bill 37, which requires school districts to provide in-person instruction.

In a statement, Cooper repeated his complaint that SB 37 allows middle school and high school students back into classrooms in violation of state and federal safety guidelines and doesn’t give districts the flexibility to change course during an emergency.

“As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic,” Cooper said. “Therefore, I veto the bill.”

The leadership of the Republican-led General Assembly said it will call for a vote to override the veto.

“Thankfully, Senate Bill 37 passed with enough bipartisan support to override Gov. Cooper’s veto, and we expect to bring it up for an override vote,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican, bill sponsor and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Ballard accused Cooper of bending to the NC Association of Educators (NCAE), which has similar concerns as the governor about SB 37.

“The far-left NCAE owns the Governor’s mansion,” Ballard chided.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said Cooper ignored  ignored “desperate parents, policy experts, and students who are suffering from his refusal to let them return to the classroom.”
“The legislature has worked hard to find common ground with the Governor, but we have a constitutional duty to provide education access to our students and will pursue a veto override on behalf of North Carolina families,” Moore said in a statement. 

An override of Cooper’s veto would require some Democrats to cross the aisle to vote with Republicans. Cooper had until Feb. 27 to act on the bill.

SB 37 has been one of the more controversial bills introduced in the long session with Republicans unanimously backing it as they push to more fully reopen businesses and schools. Backers of the bill say students are suffering irreparable academic and social and emotional damage due to remote learning.

Many Democrats and educators counter that reopening schools for in-person instruction is dangerous until teachers are vaccinated and the coronavirus is under control.

Bill opponents, however, agree with those who support SB 37 that students are better off in classrooms.

“Students learn best in the classroom and I have strongly urged all schools to open safely to in-person instruction and the vast majority of local school systems have done just that,” Cooper said.

Earlier this month, Cooper said that 91 of 115 school districts have returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will be in-person learning by mid-March, he said.

The NCAE applauded Cooper’s veto.

“The best action all legislators can take right now is to encourage their communities to comply with the safety protocols and to encourage the vaccination of all school employees,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Cooper’s veto comes just days after North Carolina’s teachers begin to receive vaccinations against COVID-19.

“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, but SB 37 is the opposite of a safe return to in-person instruction,” Walker Kelly said.

The veto came minutes before Cooper’s latest executive order took effect at 5 p.m., easing some pandemic-related restrictions to allow bars, night clubs, movie theaters and sports arenas to increase their capacity.,
Cooper cited lower infection rates and hospitalizations in easing the restrictions but urged state residents to continue to protect themselves against the coronavirus.

A bill to allow more fans at high school sporting events has life despite decision by Gov. Roy Cooper to ease attendance restrictions

Kristy Smith (r)

State Republicans continued to push Wednesday to more fully reopen the state as North Carolina’s rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to fall.

The latest effort came in the form of Senate Bill 116, which would allow more spectators to attend high school outdoor sporting events.

The bill received bipartisan support in a Senate Standing Committee on Education and Higher Education meeting.

If approved, public and nonpublic high schools could allow up to 40% of approved capacity into stadiums, parks, fields or ball courts.

The bill’s supporters got most of what they wanted Wednesday during Gov. Roy Cooper’s afternoon news conference.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The governor agreed to ease several restrictions, including one that limited attendance at outdoor sporting events to 100 people and to 25 people for indoor sporting events.

Cooper’s new Executive Order No. 195 allow attendance at outdoor sporting events to reach 30% capacity of capacity. Indoor events can have the lesser of 250 people or 30% capacity. Indoor arenas with more than 5,000 seats can have 50% of capacity.

“Easing these restrictions will only work if we keep protecting ourselves and others from this deadly virus,” Cooper said. “The order and our own common sense say that health and safety protocols must remain in place.”

Sen. Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican and one of SB 116’s primary sponsors, said the governor’s action did not go far enough.

“I appreciate the governor’s move today [Wednesday], which will provide some immediate relief,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t make much sense to me to allow 50% capacity inside restaurants, where it’s physically impossible to always wear a mask, and allow only 30% capacity at wide open outdoor sports venues. Unless I hear a compelling reason for that difference, I plan to move forward with my bill.”

The bill does not count athletes, school employees, band members or other entertainers or school support staff among spectators that would be allowed under the proposed 40% capacity rule.

SB 116 supporters say the bill is especially important for parents of seniors, many of whom stand to miss their children’s final performances.

Kristy Smith told lawmakers that she won’t be able to attend her son’s away football game Thursday. Only fans of the home team can attend games because of capacity restrictions.

“There’s going to be no pictures,” said Smith, an Alamance  County parent. “There will be no memories captured for me or my son in a season he’s worked hard for since he was six. Among other things he’s been denied as the high school senior, this may be the most disappointing.”

Cooper’s order takes effect Friday. That’s too late for Smith, even if school athletic directors decide to allow the fans of opposing teams to attend games starting Friday.

Smith is disappointed that the order won’t cover the Thursday game. She’s excited, however, about possibly attending future away games.

“It’s a little heartbreaking but I’m encouraged,” she told Policy Watch.

Smith argued that it’s unfair that she can’t attend he son’s game but can eat in restaurants alongside unmasked dinners or sit near unmasked movie-goers.

“As a mother, I respectfully request that you take a moment to consider the impact of denying parents and guardians the right to enjoy the fleeting moments of our children’s lives that have been so greatly impacted and robbed of so much by this virus,” Smith said.

Meanwhile,  Johnson complained that the definition of healthy has erroneously become the “absence” of COVID-19.

“That is the furthest thing from the truth,” Johnson said. “Living in a house that has two teenage boys, I see firsthand that there is a lot more to being healthy than just not having COVID.”

He said the physical, mental and social well-being of children are being ignored amid efforts to protect them from the coronavirus.

Committee Democrats supported the bill but did ask whether it was drafted in coordination with the N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

Johnson said he had not consulted with NCHSAA. But he said he hasn’t heard about any opposition to the bill coming from the organization that oversees high school athletics in North Carolina.

Johnson said he didn’t consult with NCDHSS, either. Instead, he relied on information about COVID-19 transmission that’s available to the public.

He said it’s reasonable to assume that attending an outdoor sporting event at 40% capacity is safer than eating in a restaurant at 50% capacity where patrons are potentially transmitting the virus while “chewing, laughing, spitting, [or] coughing.”

Johnson noted a recent report about the NFL season, which found that teams safely played games before fans in stadiums with occupancy restrictions in place.

“Throughout the entire NFL season, with many of the venues being open, not including the Carolina Panthers, keep that in mind when we’re doing budgeting, the number of revenue and the amount of revenue that we’ve lost for a lot of important projects, during the entire NFL season there were a total of zero super spreader events related to these outdoor venues,” Johnson said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, supports athletic competition, but said the state must move cautiously due to new variants of the coronavirus and the reluctance of some people to wear masks.

“I want us to pay attention to that,” Robinson said. “We want to continue to get this [infection] rate down in North Carolina so people can return fully to regular activities.”

Republicans have wasted little time introducing bills to nudge Cooper toward easing restrictions so that the state can more quickly resume business as usual.

The more important and most controversial of the bill is Senate Bill 37, that would require all school districts to provide an option for in-person instruction.

Republicans approved the bill along with a handful of Democrats.

Cooper is expected to veto the bill although he has “strongly” encouraged districts to reopen for in person instruction. He contends SB 37  doesn’t require districts to follow state and federal safety guidance and strips them of the flexibility needed to respond to emergencies.

Cooper doubled down on that position when asked about the bill Wednesday. He said he would sign legislation requiring in person instruction if lawmakers addressed his two concerns.

The governor has until Saturday to veto the bill. If he does nothing, it will become law.

Gov. Roy Cooper seeks new school reopening legislation that he can support

Gov. Roy Cooper

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper sought to clarify why he does not support Senate Bill 37, which would require all school districts to offer in-person instruction.

The governor opposes the bill because it allows older children to return to classrooms without following recommended social distancing guidelines and it doesn’t give local and state officials the flexibility to respond to emergencies.

“Suppose this [new] variant [of the virus] causes significant problems and you have in the legislation that students still have to be in person in the classroom and you take away the authority of state and local officials to be able to respond to those emergencies,” Cooper said. “That’s not a good thing.”

The bill was approved this week by House and Senate Republicans with the help of a handful of Democrats.

Cooper said that he will push for new school reopening legislation to address concerns he has about SB 37.

“I can sign a piece of legislation with those two requirements; that the guidelines be followed and that the state and local emergency authority not be hampered,” Cooper said. “I would hope that they could send another piece of legislation or just let this run its course because I think most of the local school boards are taking action.”

Cooper said that 91 of 115 school districts have returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will be in-person learning by mid-March, he said.

The governor said he will continue to encourage remaining school districts to reopen for in-person instruction and to follow recommended safety guidelines.

He did not say whether he will veto the bill.

“I will continue to discuss potential new legislation with General Assembly leaders before taking action on the bill I now have on my desk,” Cooper said.

The governor has until Feb. 28 to act on SB 37. His options are to sign it, veto it, or let it become law after 10 days without his signature. Republicans will need some Democrats to vote with them to override a veto.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and a primary sponsor of SB 37, urged Cooper to quickly veto the legislation or sign the bill.

“If a veto is coming, then do it now so the legislature can vote to override,” Ballard said in a statement. “If the Governor intends to let it become law, then he should sign it instead of taking the politically expedient option of dragging this out to the end of the month just so he can tell the far-left NCAE [NC Association of Educators] he didn’t attach his signature to it.”

The NCAE has opposed the bill largely on the same grounds as Cooper; that it doesn’t follow recommended social distancing guidelines for older children and strips state and local officials of flexibility to address changing COVID-10 metrics.

Th House and Senate approve SB 37 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.

A conference committee hashing out the differences between the House and Senate versions on the bill agreed on that change.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt issued a statement late Wednesday in support of SB 37, contending that the bill follows recommended safety guidance and provides local “discretion” in reopening.

“Parents still have a choice in which learning environment is best for their child, while teachers and staff who are uncomfortable returning have alternative options to minimize face-to-face contact and risk of exposure,” Truitt said. “This is a win for students, parents and districts across the state.”