After a year of closures, the deal will order school districts to give classroom learning options for all of North Carolina’s K-12 schools.
All North Carolina students will have the chance to return to classrooms this academic year.
Gov. Roy Cooper and state legislative leaders made that a certainty Wednesday, announcing the terms of a compromise bill that will require options for in-person learning at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
Elementary schools will operate under Plan A, which returns students to full-time, in-person classrooms. Middle and high schools will have the option of Plan A or Plan B, which also resumes in-person learning but requires schools to reduce the number of students in the classroom too. Parents will also have the choice to keep their children in remote-only instruction.
“When this pandemic seized our state a year ago, one of the hardest decisions we made was to close our schools to children and put them into remote learning,” Cooper said. “Even though it saved lives and it was the right thing to do, it hurt. … Most of all, it hurt the children.”
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The bill will go into effect 21 days after it becomes law. State senators are expected to approve the legislation Wednesday, and House Speaker Tim Moore said his chamber will approve it after it goes through committee Wednesday night or Thursday.
“It’s been a long week, but I think we’ve reached a fair compromise,” said Sen. Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who leads the state Senate.
A Rare Bipartisan Announcement
The bill was announced by an unusual—at least by Raleigh standards— alliance of legislative Republicans and Democrats, , in addition to Cooper. Recently-elected state Superintendent of Public Schools Catherine Truitt, a Republican, was also on hand at Raleigh’s Bicentennial Plaza, near the state legislature and Cooper’s Executive Mansion. Democrats and Republicans have been at odds for months over the terms of reopening.
Cooper and legislative leaders came to a deal a week after lawmakers failed to override the governor’s veto of a state Senate bill mandating an in-person school option for all North Carolina school districts. Cooper said that bill would have hindered his ability to restrict school districts in the event of local COVID outbreaks.
The bill that will be heard by lawmakers Wednesday does not give the Department of Health and Human Services, an executive branch agency under Cooper appointee Mandy Cohen, the power to block a district from reopening. But it does allow Cooper to restrict districts if a COVID outbreak makes it necessary.
Most of the state’s 115 districts have already resumed some form of in-person learning. Some of the last remaining holdouts, districts in Durham and Halifax Counties, are planning a return next week.
Districts who are already planning to reopen do not have to wait for the bill’s 21-day deadline if they are ready to return now, Berger said Wednesday. Some students in North Carolina, particularly at the middle and high school level, have not been in a classroom since the pandemic shuttered schools in March 2020.
Officials in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in NC’s Department of Health and Human Services have stated that they believe schools could be safe to reopen under certain measures, although many educators have pointed out that such recommendations overlook the massive infrastructure needs in some of NC’s aging facilities that might make reopening more problematic. Republicans and Cooper have been supportive of school reopening, but the GOP has been less concerned about the logistical and safety concerns put forth by some school leaders, including the NC Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group.
The virus has killed 11,552 people in North Carolina since it spread into the United States last year. And it remains a clear danger with just 10% of North Carolina’s population fully vaccinated. However, as vaccinations ramp up, new COVID cases have been more or less declining since February.
State and local school leaders have been under immense pressure to come to a deal, with some parents demanding a return to in-person learning and others fearing it could contribute to another wave of coronavirus cases. Virtual instruction is widely seen as inferior to in-person learning, but teachers, who began receiving their vaccinations in late February, said their return could only increase the spread of the dangerous virus to vulnerable populations that haven’t yet received a shot.
Division of Power
Cooper closed the schools last year with an executive order, but he insisted Wednesday that legislation should be used to reopen because the matter required agreement between the state’s divided branches of government.
State Rep. Robert Reives II, a Chatham and Durham County Democrat who leads the minority in the House, said the bill is evidence of the way divided governments can function.
“This is a true compromise,” said Reives. “It is something I am proud to be part of.”
Sen. Deanna Ballard, a western NC Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, lauded the “diligent” work to craft a compromise.
“Our North Carolina COVID story will be one of resiliency and heroism,” said Truitt. “We will find new ways to continue to support our students.”
Cooper said he spoke to Cohen and other state health leaders about the legislation, and they believe the state’s COVID metrics are trending in such a direction that, in addition to supporting this week’s deal, they could support a Plan A return for middle and high school students in a matter of weeks.
“The time is right now to try to finish out this year strong and try to care for the needs of children,” said Cooper.
Not everything is resolved between Democrats and Republicans on the matter. Cooper emphasized Wednesday that districts will need a strong investment for reopening. GOP lawmakers have typically offered smaller school budgets over the last decade than Democrats.
Berger said there is “no legitimate concern” about districts not receiving enough funding to make reopening in-person possible, although many education leaders in North Carolina are likely to disagree with that statement.
Editor’s note: This article has changed from the original to reflect in-person schooling will be an option in NC’s public schools this spring.