Article updated at Thursday, March 11. to include Senate and House proceedings and governor’s signing.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers have reached an agreement on reopening public schools for in-person instruction under a compromise plan that returns most decision-making autonomy to local school boards.
The state Senate voted 49-0 to approve the measure after less than 10 minutes of debate. The House on Thursday, March 11, also passed the bill in a unanimous vote. Cooper signed it Thursday night.
The new measure, Senate Bill 220, was a major victory for parents, students, and General Assembly lawmakers committed to getting students back into the classroom, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said Thursday.
“Today is just the beginning of our road to education recovery for countless North Carolina families who need our continued focus to get caught up and ready for the learning opportunities ahead for them,” Moore said in a statement.
The compromise, announced at a news conference Wednesday, March 10, means that most students could be back in public school classrooms 21 days after the bill is signed into law. That return would come after a year of remote-only or hybrid instruction for students. For families who still feel comfortable with remote-only learning, the bill requires local school systems to continue offering that option.
Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, said he’s pleased the state’s leaders came together to affirm their commitment to in-person learning.
“The Cooper administration recognized that his veto of Senate Bill 37 was unpopular with North Carolinians and inconsistent with the scientific consensus on school reopening,” Stoops said. “So, it’s not surprising that he quickly ironed out his differences with the sponsors of the bill.”
“Thankfully, with this agreement in place, thousands of public school children will have the option of in-person learning by early April. It is better late than never.”
In-person instruction will begin addressing students’ academic deficiencies and their social and mental health needs.
The news is a rare instance of Cooper appearing arm-in-arm with his Republican foes in the legislature. Joining Cooper were Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, and House Minority Leader Robert Rieves, D-Chatham were also in attendance.
“We’ve reached a fair compromise that returns many students to full-time, in-person instruction” said Berger.
“This is good news that a lot of parents around the state have been waiting on for months — that is that students are going back to school,” said Moore.
“Coming to agreement after acrimony isn’t always easy, but it’s the right thing to do for North Carolina,” said Cooper. “Today, I’m pleased to stand with these leaders to announce a plan to get all students back in the classroom safely and surely.”
The new plan 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 where a student has identified special needs through an Individualized Learning Plan or 504 plan.
Also for middle and high schools that do move to Plan A, they are required to notify the state Department of Health and Human Services and partner with the ABC Science Collaborative of the School of Medicine at Duke University to “collect and analyze data” and report on contact tracing.
The bill removes from Cooper the power to close schools statewide. Cooper 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.
“We are potentially a few dozen hours away from local districts having the option of returning to Plan A,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga. “We’ve heard from a lot of parents and school children. I want to applaud families who are so engaged — more engaged than ever in their student’s education — and the importance of what that means for their future.”