The N.C. State Board of Education passed a resolution Thursday, March 4, calling on all public school districts to give parents the option of in-person learning by the end of March. The education board’s action is the latest step in a growing consensus to swiftly reopen school classrooms across the state.
The resolution also included the endorsement of new guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services that allow K-5 schools to operate under “Plan A” — requiring minimal social distancing — while middle and high schools operate under “Plan B” — requiring six feet of social distancing.
During the Board of Education meeting, DHHS officials noted the risks of COVID-19 spread are low for elementary-school children. But Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary for DHHS, said that her department did not feel comfortable making the full recommendation for “Plan A” for middle and high schools.
“We’re making steady and positive progress,” Perry said. “I know we all want to get there as quickly as possible. All signs point in a very positive direction. We hope to be able to make strides in that direction very quickly.”
That guidance drew the ire of Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican who pushed for reopening all schools under “Plan A,” including middle and high schools.
“We need more clarity. It feels like we’re kicking the can down the street,” said Truitt. “It continues to be an exercise in frustration for our local superintendents to continue to have guidance issued that doesn’t really change anything.”
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, also a Republican, noted that his office had recently opened to on-site work, but half of the excused absences from his staff were attributable to closed public schools, which have left parents with no reliable child-care option.
“It’s not just impacting the kids who are unable to get back into the classroom. It’s impacting the parents who can’t get back to work because their kids aren’t in the classroom. It’s real,” Folwell said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are seeking to leapfrog Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37 by introducing a series of local bills that aren’t subject to a gubernatorial veto. The first of those, House Bill 90, would allow districts to fully reopen under “Plan A” in Carteret, Haywood, Randolph, and Yancey County schools. A local bill can affect up to 14 counties.
S.B. 37, which passed the General Assembly in mid-February in a bipartisan vote, would direct all public school districts to reopen for in-classroom instruction. Parents would still have the option of remote learning under the bill. Cooper vetoed the measure Feb. 26.
“The Cooper administration claims to be committed to reopening schools fully, but their actions suggest otherwise. Families are tired of Governor Cooper’s empty promises and continued disregard for the well-being of public school children,” says Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.
“The school reopening issue exhibits the problem with granting extraordinary executive power to a governor during an emergency or crisis. Even when the threat subsides, they don’t want to relinquish their authority.”
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, is the primary sponsor of H.B. 90.
“There is no issue more vital to the health and wellbeing of children in North Carolina that letting them return to in-person learning as soon as possible,” McElraft says in a statement.
“The General Assembly will pursue every available opportunity to address the devastating harm to our students that closed schools have caused,” the lawmakers says. “Our kids are not just failing — they are being failed by a refusal among elected leaders to let them learn.”
“Reopening classrooms in North Carolina for struggling students is the top priority we hear from constituents every single day in the General Assembly,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland County. “We will continue to advance legislation on their behalf that lets children return to in-person learning full time as soon as possible.”
The House Education K-12 Committee is scheduled to take up H.B. 90 Tuesday, March 9.
David Bass is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.