Retooled school reopening bill clears North Carolina General Assembly, heads to Cooper


Legislation that requires full in-person learning in North Carolina public schools for the remainder of the school year is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper.

After negotiations with the Senate, the North Carolina House approved a conference committee report on Senate Bill 37 on Wednesday. The measure requires all public K-12 schools to resume in-person learning for students with special needs without social distancing and all other K-12 classrooms to operate based on school districts' discretion.

The bill cleared the House last week and was sent to the Senate for concurrence, but the Senate and House disagreed on the final version. The chambers formed a committee and clarified language in the bill that allows certain teachers to seek accommodations.

The updated provision allows school staff to self-identify as high-risk for COVID-19 and requires districts to create a plan to address requests for alternative work reassignments. Local school boards are encouraged to minimize face-to-face contact and to allow those staff members to social distance, modify job tasks or work remotely. The provision also extends to staff with high-risk children.

“The original bill, we actually changed it to include some accommodation request language to expand this to teachers and the minors, and while the intent is very good and remains good, it caused a lot of consternation with superintendents across the state, a lot of questions, etc.,” said Rep. John Bradford III, R-Mecklenburg, who presented the report Wednesday.

The conference report was approved in House on Wednesday with a 76-42 vote. The Senate passed the report Tuesday with a 31-16 vote.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all K-12 schools to convert to remote learning in March, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After scientific data pointed to lower risks in younger children, Cooper called Oct. 5 for full attendance in K-5 public and charter schools. Cooper announced earlier this month K-5 public schools could resume in-person learning without the 6-foot social distancing requirement, referred to as Plan A in the state's guidance, and sixth- through 12th-graders should operate under Plan B, which entails smaller classrooms with social distancing.

Under SB 37, introduced by Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, K-12 classrooms without students with special needs can choose to between Plan A or B. Classrooms that require exceptional needs would operate under Plan A.

Parents still can select remote learning for their children under SB 37, which applies only to the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. School boards would have the ability to choose the best option for their schools and switch from in-person to remote learning based on COVID-19 rates as long as they give the North Carolina Department of Instruction a 72-hour warning.

Critics of the Republican bill said it doesn't consider the lack of scientific research on COVID-19 transmission among middle-school and high-school students. Democrats have filed legislation that calls for following Cooper's guidance.

Most of the state's schools are providing in-person instruction for some or all of their students, lawmakers said. If the bill becomes law, schools would have 15 days to follow the reopening plan.

Cooper said Wednesday that he would sign the bill only if it adheres to the state's public health guidance 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.

Cooper signed a $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief bill earlier this month that provides $1.6 billion to help North Carolina schools reopen. Teachers are expected to start receiving vaccines Feb. 24.

Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, also introduced a bill Wednesday that would resume in-person learning with minimum social distancing in Asheboro City, Carteret County, Haywood County, Randolph County and Yancey County schools.

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