RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A bill Republicans in the state House of Representatives plan to vote on next week would lead to some school districts being able to bring more kids back in person, but Democrats are criticizing the proposal as unconstitutional.
The bill in question would allow five school districts to operate under Plan A, the state’s least restrictive social distancing plan.
State health officials have called for middle and high schools only to return under Plan B, which calls for six feet of distance.
The bill is considered a local bill, which would not be subject to a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
It would apply to the following school districts: Asheboro City, Carteret County, Haywood County, Randolph County and Yancey County.
“We’re getting a lot of calls from around the state, a lot of my members are, where the school districts really want to have more authority to open those schools,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R). “Parents are just desperate to get kids back in school for in-person learning.”
The bill is moving forward after Republicans in the Senate tried and failed earlier this week to override Cooper’s veto of a different bill that would have required all K-12 public school districts to offer in-person learning and give them the choice of which social distancing plan to follow.
Cooper vetoed it because he said it did not follow state health guidance and limited local school boards’ ability to respond in case there’s another surge in cases.
“I can say that in the House we definitely have the votes to override (the veto of) Senate Bill 37. I believe so far the Senate has come up short. I don’t know where they stand on it now,” said Moore. “This is one way where we’re at least not stuck having to wait on it. These could be parallel tracks where this bill moves along, and in the event a veto override is secured there would not be a need for it.”
The state Constitution says local bills can only apply to fewer than 15 counties, but it also says these kinds of bills are prohibited if they are “relating to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.”
HB 90 references the CDC, World Health Organization, the ABC Science Collaborative and the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.
“I think it’s pretty clear in our Constitution that local bills are not supposed to relate to matters of health,” said Rep. Brandon Lofton (D-Mecklenburg). “My hope is that now that more of the members are aware of the constitutional issue that they will decide not to move forward with these bills that on their face clearly raise constitutional concerns.”
When asked about this issue, Moore said, “We believe we can do this because this has to do with education and the manner with which school is attended.”
The House Education Committee will consider the bill during a meeting Tuesday.
Moore said he anticipates additional districts being added to it before the House votes on it, which could occur as soon as Wednesday.
Earlier this week, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services updated its guidance for local school districts, now saying that remote learning should only be used for those who are high-risk and for families that choose it.
Otherwise, schools should be open for in-person learning in accordance with the state’s social distancing guidelines.
The State Board of Education also passed a resolution calling on schools to offer in-person learning by the end of March.
“I definitely think we need to provide as much flexibility to our local school board as possible to make decisions on the ground based on what makes sense to them, but all in compliance with what our health experts at the Department of Health and Human Services are putting forward,” said Rep. Lofton.
Some parents have raised concerns that even as their school district reopens for in-person learning, they’d like to see their children being able to attend more frequently.
Due to the social distancing requirements, some kids can only attend in-person part-time.
The bill Cooper vetoed would have required in-person instruction five days a week for students with special needs regardless of what grade they attend.
Moore said, “This roughly a year that kids have been out of school has really taken a toll. And, parents are saying enough is enough. We need to find a way to get children back.”