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School reopening bill “falls short,” Gov. Cooper says

Senate Bill 37 passed the state House on Wednesday but remains unsigned because it fails on two areas, Gov. Roy Cooper said on Thursday.
Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 8:21 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - It’s been almost a year of remote learning for some North Carolina students and although elected officials say they want students back to school in-person, there’s debate over how they should return.

Senate Bill 37 passed the state House on Wednesday but remained unsigned by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday who said it “fails on two areas.”

Gov. Cooper said it allows schools to put students back in the classroom in violation of the Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines, specifically middle and high school students returning in-person under Plan A.

“And secondly, it hampers state and local officials from being able to respond to an emergency,” Cooper added. “Suppose this variant causes significant problems, and you have ... in the legislation, that students still have to be in-person in the classroom, and you take away the authority of state and local officials to be able to respond to those emergencies, that’s not a good thing.”

The bill gives parents the option to stick to remote learning and Sen. Michael Lazzara (R-Jacksonville) said the guidelines act as a toolkit for school districts.

“We’re allowing the local leaders to decide which plan fits best,” Lazzara said. “We truly believe that we have elected leaders on school boards that can make these decisions, and they’ll make them adequately.”

Senator Don Davis (D-Pitt) said the bill gets an “A” for effort, but an “F” for execution because he said it allows middle and high school students to return back to school under Plan A without the research to support it.

“They [ABC Science Collaborative] studied elementary through high school, but they did not study middle school and high school students under the plan that eliminates or reduces the distance, the social distancing,” Davis said, which Rep. Kandie Smith (D-Pitt) echoed.

“If you look at what was presented in the bill ... it gave the option of us opening with “A,” that means minimum social distance,” Smith said. “And my whole concern was ... there was no research that was done on “A” to say that middle and high school students would not transfer [COVID-19 to a teacher] if they had contracted COVID. So that makes it a very dangerous situation.”

Sen. Davis, who filed Senate Bill 38 as an alternative plan, said there’s a safer way to bring students back in classrooms by keeping elementary students returning under Plan A as proposed in Senate Bill 37 and having middle and high school students return in-person under Plan B, which maintains moderate social distance in classrooms with fewer students.

Gov. Cooper has not stated plans to veto the bill but said he can sign it if the two requirements he mentioned are met.

“I would hope that they could send another piece of legislation or just let this run its course because I think most of the local school boards are taking action here,” Cooper said. “Local control is important.”

Rep. Smith said we’ll see what happens next but her goal is to continue to work on bringing students back in the classroom safely.

“If we now decide to put all of our children into a tight-setting and take away the science, no social-distancing and our children have not been vaccinated, then we’re more than likely gonna have issues.”

Group 3 vaccinations, which include educators, will begin on Feb. 24 and Mar. 10, according to Gov. Cooper.

Cooper said 91 of the 115 school districts in the state have returned to in-person learning and by mid-March, 95% of the state’s school districts plan to provide in-person instruction, which will serve 96% of the state’s students.

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