Bill to reopen all NC schools heads to Gov. Cooper

Lawmakers, some wearing masks, gather on the House floor as the North Carolina General Assembly opens a new session amid the current COVID-19 coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH – Bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly approved SB 37, a bill providing the mechanism for in-person instruction across North Carolina, on Thursday, Feb. 17.

With differences in Senate and House versions ironed out, the bill approved would require school districts to develop plans in accordance with the Strong Schools NC Toolkit within 15 days of the bill becoming law.

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who introduced the bill on Feb. 1, told North State Journal on Feb. 10, “There’s no denying that schools will need to take precautions, that’s why we included specific language about the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, which was developed by NCDHHS. I believe it’s time to stop making excuses. Schools across the state and the nation have been operating safely for months. This bill is a workable, safe path forward for all students.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has called for school districts to open for in-person instruction but did not mandate their opening.

In a statement earlier Thursday, Cooper criticized SB 37.

“Children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to NCDHHS 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,” he said in a statement.

The bill attracted support from several Democrats in both chambers.

In the N.C. Senate, Cumberland County senators Ben Clark and Kirk deViere voted for the bill, along with Forsyth County’s Paul Lowe.

Eight Democrats in the N.C. House voted along with all of the chamber’s Republicans.

While a final decision has not been made, Cooper could veto the bill or allow it become law without his signature.

In the event of a veto override, should legislators vote the same way on the bill, it would become law.

“There is broad agreement that the number one 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,” House Speaker Tim Moore said.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt weighed in on the bill on Feb. 18, saying in a statement, “I’ve maintained for the last 10 months that the decision to re-open schools should remain a local one. We know that students need to be back in school for face-to-face instruction, and the science shows us that schools can safely re-open if they adhere to COVID-19 prevention policies.”

“I commend the General Assembly for this bipartisan effort, as SB 37 provides local discretion for school districts while allowing our students to be back in the classroom for in-person instruction. 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. This is a win for students, parents and districts across the state,” she continued.