The Senate has tentatively voted to reopen schools, despite pushback from Democrats to block full in-person learning for older students. 

Republicans passed Senate Bill 37 on its second reading, 29-16, to give K-12 students the option to return to the classroom at least part-time. Students with special needs could choose full-time in-person learning. The Senate next meets Monday, Feb. 8. 

Democratic lawmakers voted against giving older students the chance to return to full in-person instruction, repeating that they supported “safe” reopening under public health guidance. 

School reopening has dominated this legislative session. Hundreds of frustrated parents protested in front of the governor’s mansion Monday. Gov. Roy Cooper announced his support for reopening a day later, urging schools to reopen but refusing to mandate reopening with an executive order or legislation. 

The N.C. Association of Educators still opposes the bill, saying teachers must be vaccinated as “one of the most critical steps in restarting in-person instruction.” 

But remote learning is failing students. 

About 19% of students aren’t regularly showing up for class, State Board of Education officials told lawmakers. In Alamance County, more than half of middle school students failed at least one class in the first quarter. Suicide idealization rates have skyrocketed. One in four 18-24-year-olds reported seriously considering suicide in June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“[State Health Department] Secretary Mandy Cohen has said recently that schools can reopen safely even during periods of high community transmission if they follow the safety protocols,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga. “There is a 13-year-old middle school student sitting in the gallery here today that is autistic and in desperate need of in-class instruction.”

While Republicans read letters from desperate parents and children, Democratic lawmakers repeated safety concerns and demands for more education funding. They introduced an amendment to axe full-time in-person learning as an option for middle and high school students. 

At issue is the distance between students and the COVID-19 transmission risk of older students. Democrats opposed allowing older students back into the classroom with minimal social distancing. 

“Reopening in this manner could create a very precarious situation,” said Sen. Deandrea Salvador, D-Mecklenburg. “We need to take a measured approach that gets kids back into school, but does it safely. It must take into account the safety of our teachers and support staff.”

Republicans shot down the amendment, as well as other amendments to put another $177 million toward schools. They also decided against giving schools 30 days to reopen instead of 15 days. 

“Our children are not safe from other things outside of schools,” said Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance. “Those are children who’re at home with their abuser with no hope of anybody seeing their pain and suffering. We have a virus dashboard to look at that tells us what the virus is doing. … The suicide statistics lag by two years. We won’t know until 2022.”