By Nyamekye Daniel
(The Center Square) – The North Carolina House approved Senate Bill 37 on Thursday, a measure that would require full in-person learning in North Carolina public schools resume.
The bill cleared the Senate on Tuesday, but it must return to that chamber for concurrence after the House added language to the bill that reiterates a provision exempting certain teachers from in-person learning.
SB 37 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 was hotly debated on the House floor Thursday. Seven of the eight amendments filed were rejected before the House passed the bill, 74-44.
Reps. Raymond Smith Jr., D-Sampson, and Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, said the legislation is unnecessary since local districts already can choose how to operate under the state’s guidance.
“I don’t see that we need to mandate anything if we’re all in agreement that we need to reopen schools, and there’s a much better way to do that by giving local school boards the decision – that ability to make that decision for themselves,” Smith said.
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. Last week, Cooper announced 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 could 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.
Teachers who are high-risk or are caretakers of children or adults at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 can opt-out of in-person learning instruction.
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 filed a counter bill to SB 37 on Wednesday. The Democrats’ reopening bill, Senate Bill 78, allows K-5 schools to choose between Plan A and B, but 6-12 schools would resume learning under Plan B unless health officials issue guidance that says otherwise.
Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, one of the Democrat bill’s sponsors, previously filed a similar amendment to SB 37, but it was struck down during the Senate’s second reading of the bill last week. Rep. Amber Baker, D-Forsyth, filed a similar amendment to the Republican bill Thursday that saw the same fate.
Rep. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg, called for charter schools to be added to the legislation, but a majority of the House voted against her amendment.
“Parents of students at LEAs (Local Education Agencies) don’t get a chance to vote with their feet,” said Rep. John Bradford III, R-Mecklenburg, who presented the measure Thursday. “If a parent is not happy because a charter school has not opened, when they want it to be opened, they can vote with their feet by pulling the child out of the charter coming into an LEA, which will now be opened under this bill.”
Cooper said last week at least 90 of the state’s 115 school districts are providing in-person instruction for some or all of their students. Lawmakers said Wednesday the number of remote only schools might be lower, however.
The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest education advocacy organization for public school employees, said teachers want to resume in-person instruction but “with the resources to happen safely.”
If the bill becomes law, schools would have 15 days to follow the reopening plan.
Cooper signed Senate Bill 36 on Wednesday. It’s a $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief bill that provides $1.6 billion to help North Carolina schools reopen. The governor also announced a plan Wednesday to start vaccinating teachers Feb. 24.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.