Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly say they will consider overriding the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 37, the school reopening bill, as soon as Monday, March 1.
The Senate is scheduled to return to session at 4 p.m., the House at 6.
Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the school reopening bill on Friday, Feb. 26, claiming it “threatens public health” despite overwhelming evidence that schools can operate safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill, passed by a bipartisan supermajority of both houses, would require that school districts in North Carolina offer in-person instruction to all K-12 students at least part-time.
Cooper’s veto came nine days after state lawmakers presented him the reopening bill, Senate Bill 37, and one day before he faced a constitutional deadline to sign the bill, veto it, or allow it to become law with no action.
School districts would have the option of offering full-time in-person instruction, known as Plan A, or a limited classroom arrangement under Plan B. But students with special needs would be required to be offered full-time schooling under Plan A.
All parents would still have the choice to keep their children in remote learning.
Cooper, a Democrat, stated in his veto message he objected to the bill because it would let middle and high school students return to the classroom in violation of his administration’s guidance.
All schools would need to follow the administration’s public health guidelines under the bill. The only difference between the bill and Cooper’s school guidelines for middle and high schools appears to be the provision for special education students. N.C. middle and high schools are already allowed to reopen under Plan B.
The veto message says the bill “hinders local and state officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency,” but does not elaborate on how. The bill would have created a process for teachers and staff at high risks for COVID to obtain accommodations.
N.C. public schools have been intermittently closed for nearly a year. Some districts chose to reopen elementary schools last fall, though other districts have remained fully remote. All middle and high schools have been closed until this month.
Educators have warned that record numbers of students are failing classes this year, and an unusually high percentage have been chronically absent.
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt decried the veto as politically motivated. She praised the bill for offering districts latitude to make choices while protecting public health.
“This bill should have been a win for students, parents and districts across the state,” she wrote. “I’m disappointed to see politics at play when we know where the science stands.”
The N.C. Association of Educators, a teachers organization, thanked Cooper for vetoing the bill.
“This bill would have needlessly endangered the health and safety of educators and students,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement. “The best action all legislators can take right now is to encourage their communities to comply with the safety protocols and to encourage the vaccination of all school employees.”
Immediately after the veto, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, vowed to bring the bill for a veto override vote. An override requires a three-fifths supermajority vote in both chambers.
“Education policy should be driven by the best interests of children, not the far-left N.C. Association of Educators,” Berger said on Twitter.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, also said he would pursue a veto override.
“With this veto the governor ignored desperate parents, policy experts, and students who are suffering from his refusal to let them return to the classroom,” Moore said in a statement.
“The legislature has worked hard to find common ground with the governor, but we have a constitutional duty to provide education access to our students and will pursue a veto override on behalf of North Carolina families.”
The bill had enough votes when ratified by the General Assembly, earning 77 votes in the House and 31 in the Senate. Three-fifths would mean 72 votes and 30 votes, respectively.
However, Democrat votes have tended to fall off after Cooper vetoes since he took office in 2017.
Cooper’s first veto of 2021 extends his state record to 54. Since the N.C. governor gained veto power in 1997, no other chief executive in the state has vetoed more than 20 bills.
While lawmakers voted to override 23 of 28 Cooper vetoes during the governor’s first two years in office in 2017-18, all 25 vetoes he issued in 2019-20 withstood legislative challenge. The difference? Republicans held legislative supermajorities in 2017-18. They lost supermajorities in the 2018 election. They have needed Democratic support since 2019 to overcome the governor’s objections.
A poll released this week by the Carolina Partnership for Reform found that 73% of N.C. voters supported the bill.
CJ staff contributed to this story.