Majorities of the House and Senate agree that N.C. schools need legislative prodding to reopen, but they’re struggling to come to terms on how to do it.

Both houses of the General Assembly have passed a version of Senate Bill 37, which would require school districts to reopen for in-person instruction in some capacity.

But each chamber passed different versions of the bill, and they were still unable Monday, Feb. 15, to reach agreement on a compromise that can be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Nearly a year into the COVID pandemic, school districts across the state have been slow to reopen after Cooper ordered them to close in March. While some school districts have brought back students to the classroom part-time, others remain fully remote.

School boards have made these decisions despite research from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill doctors that finds schools can reopen safely due to extremely limited COVID spread in school buildings. 

With that in mind, the Senate passed a bill last week that would mandate schools to offer at least part-time instruction in the classroom for all students K-12. Parents would still have the option of keeping their children in remote learning if they chose to.

Students with Individualized Education Plans, which includes children with disabilities and others who need special education, would be able to go back to school full-time.

School districts would still be able to move individual schools to remote learning to deal with outbreaks of coronavirus.

The House version is slightly different. It includes language that would require school districts to make “reasonable work accommodations” for teachers who have a condition that puts them at risk for COVID or are the caretaker of a child who does. 

However, the bill passed in the House includes some conflicting language over whether school districts “may” make these accommodations or “shall” make them. 

Some senators indicated confusing language was the reason they did not vote to concur with the House bill.

The House met Monday but did not take any votes, and none are expected until Wednesday at the earliest. The Senate is scheduled to convene Tuesday.

Should the two chambers reach an agreement, the bill will go to Cooper for signature. While he has said he believes schools should be open, he has deferred to local school boards to make the tough decisions.

The General Assembly has already passed laws that allocate $1.6 billion to public schools to prepare for classroom instruction. An earlier budget bill made it so school districts would not have their funding reduced even if their enrollment numbers fell this year.

Many school districts have seen significant drops in enrollment as they remained closed, with parents choosing to homeschool or find private or charter schools that were open.

This “hold harmless” provision could set up the next funding challenge for N.C. schools.

“While it is possible that student enrollment rebounds next school year, districts should craft budgets under the assumption that enrollment drops are permanent,” said Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education John Locke Foundation.

“Extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures like hold harmless provisions and massive federal assistance.  But a post-pandemic world is on the horizon, and school districts would be wise to begin preparing for it.”

Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.