RALEIGH — The N.C. House and Senate have come to terms on legislation to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
The measure, Senate Bill 37, says schools shall provide the option of in-person instruction to students in grades kindergarten through 12 for the remainder of the scheduled 2020-21 school year. Classes would begin no later than the first weekday 15 days after the law passes.
The Senate approved the final deal, 31-16, Tuesday afternoon; the House adopted it, 77-42, Wednesday afternoon.
As Carolina Journal reported, the two chambers were required to reach a compromise on a bill to send to Cooper. A House version of the bill added language that could require school districts to make reasonable work accommodations for teachers more at-risk for COVID or who take care of children more susceptible to the virus.
But Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has indicated he will veto it, even though he says he wants students back in school. Many N.C. schools have been closed for in-person instruction for almost a year. Some school districts have brought back students to the classroom part-time, and others remain fully remote.
The General Assembly may vote to override the veto, however.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Cooper said, “Children should be back in the classroom safely, and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies. This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.”
Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, supports the measure.
“In a world where Governor Cooper and school boards defer to the scientific consensus on school reopening,” he said, “Senate Bill 37 would not be necessary. Thankfully, state lawmakers were willing to intervene on behalf of the tens of thousands of children who do not have an in-person option.
“If Cooper vetoes this legislation, then North Carolinians should question the sincerity of his stated desire to see school buildings reopen to students.”
The bill says schools shall comply with the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit and that local boards of education shall provide the option of in-person under Plan A of the reopening plan to all students with an individualized education program, unless in-person instruction isn’t allowed under that student’s program or plan.
“This bill has been characterized as an education measure,” Stoops said. “But it is more than that. It is legislation that will improve child well-being generally. In-person instruction is critical for the social and emotional development of children.”
“Senate Bill 37 strikes a necessary balance between legitimate health concerns and the strong desire of North Carolina parents to have in-person educational options.”
The General Assembly has already passed laws that allocate $1.6 billion to public schools to prepare for classroom instruction. An earlier budget bill made it so school districts would not have their funding reduced even if their enrollment numbers fell this year.
Many school districts have seen significant drops in enrollment as they remained closed, with parents choosing to homeschool or find private or charter schools that were open.
This “hold-harmless” provision could set up the next funding challenge for N.C. schools.
“While it is possible that student enrollment rebounds next school year, districts should craft budgets under the assumption that enrollment drops are permanent,” Stoops said.
“Extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures like hold-harmless provisions and massive federal assistance. But a post-pandemic world is on the horizon, and school districts would be wise to begin preparing for it.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has said that S.B. 37 addresses education, economic, and mental health crises harming North Carolina families, whose school districts face some of the tightest restrictions on reopening in the nation, according to a news release.
“There is broad agreement that the No. 1 priority for North Carolinians today, the most important shared goal that we can accomplish together right now, is reopening public schools for struggling young students,” Moore said Wednesday.
“I urge the governor to sign this bill because parents, health-care experts, and educators agree that safely returning students to the classroom as soon as possible is vital for educational and economic recovery in North Carolina.”