By WECT Staff | March 10, 2021 at 10:33 AM EST – Updated March 11 at 12:57 PM
RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) – The North Carolina General Assembly unanimously passed a bipartisan bill aimed at reopening schools across the state for in-person learning. Governor Roy Cooper is expected to sign the bill later this week.
Cooper and North Carolina lawmakers announced details of the compromise bill during a press conference held in downtown Raleigh Wednesday morning.
“Today, I am pleased to stand with these leaders and announce an agreement to get all students into school safely and surely,” Cooper stated during a joint media briefing held, fittingly, on the steps of Bicentennial Plaza, located between the state Capitol and Legislative building.
Cooper said the increase in vaccinations across the state coupled with declining new virus cases were key components to reopening all North Carolina schools to in-person learning.
“Like many parents, I’ve been worrying about the extent to which they’ve been falling behind academically, the missed opportunities for teenagers from not being at school, but most of all, we worry about their mental health,” said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.
It’s why the state has pushed to get students back in the classroom — and after a number of disagreements in Raleigh — legislators and Governor Roy Cooper have to a compromise to reopen schools safely.
“As every week goes by, I’m more encouraged though still cautious,” Cooper said. “Last week, the state board of education and public health leaders told us all students should be in the classroom and that it could be done safely. The bill before you tells schools when and how. The good news is we all want the same thing: to open our schools to in-person instruction for all students and to do it safely with important emergency protections.”
Getting students safely back into classrooms must be our shared priority. Today I announced an agreement with education, health & legislative leaders that will return schools to in person learning while retaining our ability to protect students and educators in an emergency. – RC pic.twitter.com/WsM21LkSGd
— Governor Roy Cooper (@NC_Governor) March 10, 2021
Last month, Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 37 which was aimed at requiring an in-person option for all schools in the state. Cooper said that the bill “fell short” of his expectations by not adhering to NCDHHS and CDC safety guidance for middle and high schools. He also said the bill also failed to allow state and local leaders to protect students and teachers during an Covid-related emergency.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said lawmakers and Cooper’s staff worked on the compromise agreement for the past week.
“All sides have seen and agreed to the language of the bill,” Berger added. He then walked through some of the highlights of the bill, which are as follows:
- All elementary schools will be required to operate under Plan A.
- Local districts will have the option of Plan A or Plan B for middle and high schools.
- Districts moving to plan A for middle and high schools, are required to notify NCDHHS prior to moving to Plan A and to describe their plan to move to Plan A for consultation. NCDHHS will not have the authority to veto a district’s plan. Cooper will have the authority to order a closer, restriction, or reduction within schools but can only do so on a district-by-district basis. All orders from Cooper must state the reason for the order.
- Local districts retain authority to close in event of an outbreak
- Any district that decides to move middle or high schools to Plan A, must partner with the ABC Science Collaborative to allow researchers to collect and analyze anonymized data from those districts on the safety of opening schools. Berger said this data collection method was similar to last year when districts moved to Plan B.
- Districts will be allowed to add teacher work days between the date the compromise bill becomes law and the date when the district switches plans to allow teachers and staff to prepare for the transition, if needed.
- Districts which middle or high schools remain in Plan B, students with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 will have the option of Plan A at the discretion of the student’s parents.
- All districts must provide the option for 100% remote learning
- $500,000 will be allocated to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to collaborate with the ABC Science Collaborative for data collection and review
- The effective date of the requirements of the new bill is 21 days after it becomes law, but districts will not have to wait for that if they are ready to switch plans.
“It’s been a long week, but we’ve reached, what I think, is a fair compromise that returns students to full-time, in-person instruction,” Berger said. “North Carolina can be a national leader in reopening schools, and producing world-class [data] analysis to enable other states to follow suit.”
All elementary schools in southeastern North Carolina are already operating under Plan A, but middle and high schools now have the option to move forward with reopening. Brunswick County Schools says they’ll consider the move while Pender County will likely call a special Board of Education meeting to discuss their options.
“What we have to do legally in terms of spacing, what we have to do in terms of how many kids we have, all that type of stuff we have to review,” said Alex Riley with Pender County Schools.
SB 220 was unanimously passed by both the Senate, on Wednesday, and the House, on Thursday, and now heads to Cooper’s desk.
“This legislation accomplishes what we’ve wanted from the beginning, getting kids back into the classroom,” Berger said in a statement after the bill was passed by the Senate. “I want to thank Sens. Ballard, Lee, and deViere for standing up for our students. Our students will be able to return to the classroom and school districts will retain the flexibility to open in a way that best fits their needs. I look forward to this bill being passed and signed into law as quickly as possible.”
A statement from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), an advocacy group for public school employees, was critical of the newly-proposed bill.
“NCAE continues to stress the need for 6 feet of social distancing as recommended by the CDC in areas of high community spread to protect students and educators. 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,” the statement read.
Bill to reopen NC schools is underway
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