House passes school reopening bill, heads to Gov. Cooper who says it ‘falls short’

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is saying a bill passed by the North Carolina General Assembly “falls short.”

The North Carolina House passed Senate Bill 37 on Wednesday by a 77-42 vote. It now heads to Cooper’s desk.

The bill would require public schools to offer families the option of in-person learning.

Ahead of the vote, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said the bill “falls short.” He’s raised concerns about it over the last couple weeks.

“Children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies.

“This bill currently falls short on both these fronts,” Cooper said.

Despite indications Cooper could veto the bill, eight Democrats joined with the Republicans in voting in favor of it Wednesday.

If the governor doesn’t veto it, SB37 will become law if Cooper doesn’t sign it for 10 days. School districts would have 15 days to comply.

The bill would give school districts the option of which of the state’s social distancing plans they want to use to reopen.

Cooper and state health officials have only called for middle and high schools to go back in person with six-feet of social distancing (Plan B).

“I think school districts understand what they can and cannot do based on their physical restraints or personnel limitations,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-45th District). “We’re talking about really providing some stability for the family as a whole and for the kid as well.”

The bill allows school districts to make accommodations for employees who are at high risk for COVID-19 as well as those who care for someone who is at high risk.

The bill still gives families the choice of remote learning.

Some districts, such as Durham Public Schools, have planned to stay virtual for the rest of the year, but administrators said last week they were making plans to resume in-person learning in the event the General Assembly required that option.

The bill allows administrators to close classrooms or schools due to COVID-19 cases but not the entire district.

“My concern with mandating it is that we don’t know what is to come. We don’t know if one of these variants takes off all of a sudden,” said Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Guilford). “Things have ebbed and flowed and changed, and we need to be able to make adjustments. And, I don’t think we should be limiting those when we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Jennifer Birch, who is a parent of children in Wake County schools and a mental health counselor, said she worries about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on kids. While some of them have done well with remote learning, others have struggled and even regressed, she said.

The bill calls for students with exceptional needs to be allowed to come to school in-person under the state’s Plan A (minimal social distancing). Birch has a son in 4th grade who has an individualized education program (IEP).

“This is not a Raleigh issue or a Wake County issue or even a North Carolina issue. It’s very much a national issue,” she said. “I worry about the trauma that this is creating. I think the pandemic is a trauma, and I think being out of school has caused an additional trauma for the children.”

Republican state Senators filed SB37 on Feb. 1.

Sens. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) and Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) are the primary sponsors.

“Our students need to be in school, there’s no question about that. We can get them back into classrooms safely. Students are suffering and parents are watching their children fall behind in their learning, worrying that they’ll never catch up,” Ballard said at the time the bill was filed.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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