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General Assembly plans massive investment to reopen schools

A new Senate COVID relief bill would spend $1.6 billion to outfit N.C. public schools for reopening, a massive investment that foreshadows the looming battle over how the next school year will unfold.

The new school funding is part of a larger bill that makes significant adjustments to the state’s COVID relief finances. The additional $1.6 billion for public schools comes from a budget bill passed by the U.S. Congress in the closing days of 2020.

In North Carolina, this money will primarily be sent to local school districts and can be used for sanitation and protective equipment, upgrades to school buildings for better ventilation, and programs for addressing learning loss.

The N.C. bill will begin committee hearings Tuesday but is likely to have significant support. It was filed by the chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee: Sens. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Brent Jackson, R-Sampson.

This is the latest in a series of bills that indicate the General Assembly’s anxiousness to return children to classrooms.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has still ordered all middle and high schools to shut down for in-person learning. Elementary schools can be open at limited capacity, but many of the state’s largest — including Wake County Public School System and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — have chosen to keep kids at home.

Another bill filed in the Senate on Monday would require school districts to offer families the option of sending their children to school. Its plan would continue to give parents the option to choose virtual learning for their children. 

A Civitas poll released last week found that a plurality of N.C. voters disapprove of how Cooper has handled school reopening, with 46% disapproving to 39% approving.

The Senate bill would also:

  • Increase the state’s  Emergency Rental Assistance Program by roughly $546 million.
  • Extend the deadline for parents to submit the tax forms needed to receive their $335 “Extra Credit Grant” checks.
  • Spend $39 million of state money on expanding high-speed internet in rural areas.
  • Allocate $95 million of federal money for vaccine distribution.
  • Beef up oversight of the state’s COVID recovery efforts, requiring the N.C. Pandemic Recovery Office to submit more regular reports on its expenditures. 

    Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.