Even as a bill to reopen schools across North Carolina garnered unanimous bipartisan support and was fast-tracked through the legislature, North Carolina’s teacher’s union released a statement blasting Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and lawmakers from both political parties for the compromise.

In a rare instance of bipartisan agreement, Cooper joined with both Republican and Democratic leaders in the N.C. House and Senate at a news conference Wednesday, March 10, to unveil a new school reopening plan for the entire state. Fewer than 24 hours later, Senate Bill 220 has won unanimous support from both chambers of the General Assembly—a 49-0 vote in the Senate on Wednesday and a 119-0 vote in the House on Thursday. Cooper signed the bill into law later that day.

Even so, the left-wing N.C. Association of Educators remains opposed to the measure, putting the teacher’s union in rare opposition to Cooper, who has remained a staunch ally.

“This 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 [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians,” NCAE president Tamika Kelly said in a statement.

“It is deeply disturbing that the governor and legislative leaders failed to acknowledge the work that educators have been doing to keep students engaged and learning during the worst pandemic in a century while effectively absolving themselves of any further responsibility for the health and safety of our public schools and those who learn and work in them,” Kelly continued.

Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, countered Kelly’s comments.

“In recent weeks, the Cooper administration appears to have realized that the NCAE’s hardline position on school reopening is out of step with the needs of North Carolina families,” said Stoops.  “That is one reason Governor Cooper quickly ironed out a consensus plan with Republican leaders.

“The NCAE’s actions speak louder than words,” Stoops told Carolina Journal. “The group’s leaders claim that they are eager to return to the classroom, but they persistently pan good-faith efforts to resume in-person instruction. It’s a charade that will hasten the NCAE’s descent into political irrelevancy.”

S.B. 220 directs local school boards to give students in kindergarten through fifth grade the option of returning to “Plan A” in-person classroom instruction, requiring minimal social distancing. For middle- and high-school students, school boards will have a choice between “Plan A” and “Plan B,” which requires more stringent social distancing.

In the case of middle and high schools, the bill specifies that authority on that decision rests solely with the school board, except in cases in which a student has identified special needs through an Individualized Learning Plan or 504 plan.

The bill removes from Cooper the power to close schools statewide. The governor still has the option of closing specific school districts “when necessary to protect the health and safety of students and employees in that unit,” but Cooper must state his reasons for doing so.

School districts may return to in-person instruction immediately as soon as Cooper signs the bill, but there is a 21-day window for all of the bill’s provisions to take effect.

During debate on the House floor Thursday, Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, emphasized that the bill might be too little, too late to help some students, with summer school and remediation work needed. “For many kids, coming back at the end of this year will not be enough. We must commit to helping them get caught up.

“We cannot close our classrooms again,” Torbett said. “We must ensure in emergencies our schools still meet the needs of our families. Taxpayers deserve the school system to function at a high level, each and every day. That’s the progress that this bill represents.”

During floor debate, House Minority Leader Robert Rieves, D-Chatham, praised the bipartisan nature of S.B. 220.

“To me, this is how we should be operating as a government,” Rieves said. “It’s ironic that this is an education bill. We’re teaching each other how work ought to be done, teaching the rest of the state. Ultimately, we had one goal: Get students safely back in the school, get some normalcy, and begin the process of healing from this pandemic.”