RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Senate Republicans pressed forward Wednesday with their attempt to try a second time to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill to reopen schools, a move longtime members of both parties said they had never seen occur before.
On Monday, Republicans fell one vote short of the supermajority need to override Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37, which would require K-12 public school districts to offer the option of in-person learning.
“The most important thing at this point is to get kids back into school. And, the most direct way to do that at this point is for Senate Bill 37 to become law,” said Republican Senate leader Phil Berger. “I guess the question would be were they moving in that direction before the bill started moving. And, it didn’t appear to me or to a number of people that they were actually taking those steps.”
During Wednesday’s session, Republicans moved to reconsider Monday’s override vote. The earliest the Senate could try to override the veto again would be Thursday.
Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland/Hoke) co-sponsored the bill and helped craft the compromise version that ultimately passed the General Assembly.
He was absent from Monday night’s vote.
In an interview, he said he wants to see changes to the bill that address the concerns Cooper has raised, including requiring six feet of social distancing for middle and high schools and giving officials the ability to act if there’s another surge in cases.
“What they have the option to do, should they choose to do so is send that bill back to conference and include the things the Governor has asked for. And, that’s what I would like to see them do. If they do that, then I would have no problem with Senate Bill 37,” he said.
When asked why he voted in favor of the bill originally when he had those concerns about it, he said, “I was concerned about them then. The thing is you have to understand, when you have a legislative process, you have to go through a lot of give and take. And, the expectation is always that maybe somewhere along the line those problems that you highlighted will be fixed. Unfortunately, they did not get fixed before they got to the Governor’s desk and the Governor served as the stop.”
Just as the Senate convened Wednesday afternoon, the state Dept. of Health and Human Services released new guidance for schools, saying they “are expected to open for in-person instruction.”
The new guidance can be seen here.
It calls for school districts to offer a remote-learning option for students, teacher and staff considered high-risk.
“All other students must be provided with in-person instruction,” the guidance reads. That can occur under Plan A (minimal social distancing) or Plan B (moderate social distancing) for grades K-5 and Plan B only for grades 6-12.
A sticking point in the debate over Senate Bill 37 has been that it gives school districts the option of which plan to use for all grades.
Cooper said Wednesday he was still discussing the issue with Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly and could sign a bill that addresses the concerns he’s raised.
“I believe that our children need to be back in the classroom. We just need to make sure that it is done safely,” he said. “We need to make sure that officials have emergency power to deal with things like a variant that could go tearing through our population and schools.”
Senate Democrats wrote to the State Board of Education Wednesday urging them to adopt the new guidance DHHS released. The board is scheduled to consider that Thursday.
Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake), who co-signed the letter, was critical of Republicans seeking to override Cooper’s veto a second time.
“They know they lost. They know they’re going to lose again. And, instead of working with Gov. Cooper, they’re trying to go their way or the highway,” he said. “This is just so unnecessary. Almost every single school district in the state is returning to in-person instruction in weeks.”
Berger said regardless of the outcome of the override vote, he believes the push to pass SB37 in the last month has spurred local school boards to move more quickly to reopen.
“We don’t feel like they’ve gone far enough. But, we don’t think they would have gone as far as they’ve gone but for this bill,” he said.