School reopening bill sent to Gov. Cooper

State leaders discuss school reopening plans. Photo via A.P. Dillon, North State Journal

RALEIGH — An agreement to reopen North Carolina public schools announced yesterday at a press conference is already headed to Gov. Roy Cooper after quickly passing through both chambers of the General Assembly.

The Mar. 10 announcement on the Bicentennial Plaza in Raleigh included State Superintendent Catherine Truitt as well as legislative leaders Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain). Also on hand was Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) who chairs the House Education Committee and has spearheaded the effort to return K-12 students to school. Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Sen. Robert Reives (D-Chatham) were also present.

Over the course of the pandemic, Cooper had acted unilaterally to close schools and add restrictions using executive orders. When asked why he was not issuing an executive order on schools, the governor answered that “we need to do this in a collaborative way.”

The agreement between lawmakers and the governor resulted in Senate Bill 220, which is similar to the earlier reopening school bill, Senate Bill 37, however, this version contains additional language preserving the governor’s powers to order closures or increased restrictions but only on a district-by-district basis.

The Senate unanimously passed the measure on Mar. 10 and sent it to the House the same day. The morning of Mar. 11, the House voted unanimously, 119-0, to pass the bill and send it to the governor who signed it the same day.

Senate Bill 220 requires districts to return kindergarten through fifth grades to in-person instruction under Plan A as that plan is defined by the most recent version of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) StrongSchools Toolkit.

According to the bill, the decision of whether to offer Plan A or Plan B for grades six-12 “is solely within the discretion of the local board of education.” School boards are required to notify NCDHHS and offer a description of their plan for moving grades six to 12 to Plan A. NCDHHS will have no veto power over a local district’s decision to move to Plan A.

Students who have IEP or 504 plan must be given the option of in-person instruction under Plan A. Parents of students in grades six through 12 with IEPs or 504’s currently in Plan B can opt to move their students to attend under Plan A.

Families can also continue with virtual instruction.

While the bill moved swiftly through the General Assembly, it will not be effective until 21 days after Cooper signs it into law. Districts, however, can move to either Plan A or B immediately after it becomes law.

Another provision added is $500,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds to be allocated to the Department of Public Instruction to contract with ABC Science Collaborative to conduct testing, tracing, and data analysis of COVID-19-related metrics of students, teachers, and staff for middle and high school students in schools under Plan A.

Data collection will start this month according to the bill, which requires “interim analysis of aggregate data” to be turned in by the last calendar day of March, April, and May.  A final analysis of “both aggregate data and individual partnering local school administrative unit data” is required by June 30, 2021.

The fight to get K-12 students back in the classroom by parents began last fall, but continued on with the passage of SB 37, which Gov. Cooper vetoed after sitting on it for almost the full ten days allowable by statute before it would have passed into law without his signature.

Cooper said in his veto message he said that the bill “threatens public health,” but lawmakers blamed the governor for bowing to pressure from the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), a teachers’ union affiliate. On the same day as Cooper’s veto, Moore and Berger made vows to hold an override vote.

On Mar. 1, the Senate attempted an override but the final vote count was 29-20, just one vote short of the three-fifths requirement.

The override was short due to one of the Democratic sponsors of the bill, Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland County), asked for an excused absence from the vote and another Democrat who had originally voted to pass the bill changed his mind. Sen. Lowe (D-Forsyth) announced prior to the scheduled vote that he would uphold the governor’s veto. Lowe justified his veto to the News & Observer, saying that “He asked. I am a Democrat. He’s the governor, and a Democratic governor.”

Two days later on Mar 3. the Senate approved a motion to reconsider a veto override of Senate Bill 37. Earlier that same day, NCDHHS announced updates to its Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit. Those updates included guidance for all students to return to in-person instruction to the  “fullest extent possible” while following the prescribed Plan A and Plan B health protocols.

The following week, on Mar. 9, Berger and Ballard held a press conference and announces they have been negotiating with the governor about Senate Bill 37. Berger said that he hoped to have an agreement on opening schools later that day, but that “nothing is for sure.” Berger also said that he hoped any agreement made “makes SB 37 a moot point.” The next day, notification for the joint press event on the Bicentennial Plaza went out just hours before an 11 a.m. start time.

Following the announcement of an agreement on school reopening, the NCAE issued a statement which in part cited  “the need” for six-feet distancing and that the “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 NCAE statement also said it was ‘deeply disturbing” that the governor and others at the press announcement did not acknowledge the work educators have done during the pandemic, however, many of the participants addressed teachers for their work at some point during the conference.

About A.P. Dillon 1250 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_