RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — After the Republican-led General Assembly unanimously approved a bill Thursday to further open public schools, Gov. Roy Cooper signed it into law.
The House of Representatives took a final vote Thursday morning, approving the measure that requires public schools to offer families an in-person learning option. Families can still choose remote learning.
“This bill, although positive and bipartisan in nature, unfortunately is perhaps a little too late,” said Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston). “Without constant attention to out students that have lagged so far behind or disappeared off the rolls altogether, this won’t mean a whole lot.”
The bill requires grades K-5 to operate under Plan A, which is the state’s minimal social distancing plan. It gives middle and high schools the option of Plan A or Plan B, which requires six feet of distance.
Students with exceptional needs have to be offered in-person classes under Plan A, regardless of what grade they attend.
“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement.
The North Carolina Association of Educators has criticized the bill for allowing older students to potentially go to school in-person without six feet of distance.
When asked about that, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said, “This is being done safely. We moved teachers to the head of the line to get vaccines now a couple of weeks ago.”
Employees at schools and child care centers became eligible to get vaccinated Feb. 24, allowing them access to the vaccines before other frontline essential workers.
Rep. Amber Baker (D-Forsyth), who has worked in public education for more than 20 years, said she thinks educators have been unfairly criticized for calling for additional safety measures.
“It’s been very vicious and very attacking,” she said. “We’re often vilified, and we don’t hold everyone accountable for doing their part.”
The bill gives the governor the authority to shift a district back to all remote learning in the event of an emergency, such as a surge in cases. He would not be able to move the entire state to remote learning. Cooper said Wednesday it’s not a step he wants to take.
Local school authorities can move a classroom or school to remote learning but not an entire district.
“We cannot close our classrooms again. We must ensure that in emergencies, our schools still meet the needs of families,” Torbett said.
Baker said she thought that was an impractical position to take, given that the pandemic is not over.
“It’s not reasonable because if you have cluster outbreak in a district or a school, we have to give some autonomy to our governor and our respective districts,” she said.