By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Both political parties are throwing their weight behind school reopening in North Carolina.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, urged schools to allow students to return to the classroom. Republican lawmakers also Tuesday, Feb. 2 moved to mandate in-person learning as an option for all K-12 students.
Lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 37 to reopen schools for students with special needs. Other students would gain the option to return to the classroom at least part of the time. Lawmakers gave the bill a favorable report in the Senate Education Committee, sending it to the Senate Rules Committee.
“Now it’s time to get our children back into the classroom,” Cooper said in an afternoon news conference. “Students can be in classroom safety, with the right protocols. … Students who are ready to return to the classroom should have that option.“
Hundreds of parents protested remote learning before the governor’s mansion on Monday. More parents described sacrificing their careers and income during the committee meeting on Tuesday. One family said their special needs son had regressed. A therapist warned of rising suicide idealization in her younger patients. A doctor recounted data showing that reopening schools did not cause a spike in infections.
“The time has come for us to give parents the option of in-person instruction for their kids,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga. “Enough is enough, and it’s past time. We all know the continued learning loss, the lack of routine, the lack of social interaction is creating a generation of anxious, depressed and helpless kids. … We can have courage and change the course.”
Cooper made his announcement minutes after the committee meeting ended. But Cooper and the legislature still don’t agree on in-person learning. Republicans moved to open classrooms within 15 days after the bill became law. Cooper says he has concerns with the legislation.
Cooper didn’t promise a veto of the bill or issuing an executive order to reopen schools. He repeatedly expressed his support for local control. He also dodged a question about using executive orders to shutter schools across the state.
“I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Cooper said. “Let’s give these local leaders a chance.”
Remote learning has left the most disadvantaged children behind. The governor allowed private schools to open in July, and students who can afford the tuition have enjoyed the option of in-person learning for the past seven months. But the public schools remain shut.
Students are falling through the cracks.
Some 19% of students aren’t regularly attending classes, State Board of Education officials told lawmakers. Experts predict historic levels of learning loss. In Alamance County, almost 56% of middle school students failed at least one class in the first quarter, almost double the failing rate of 26% last year.
The suicide idealization rates have spiked.
One in four 18-24-year-olds reported seriously considering suicide in June. More children landed in the emergency room for mental health problems. Children’s mental health hospital visits rose 24% in children ages 5–11, and 30% for children between the ages of 12–17, from April to October 2020, according to the CDC.
Multiple parents described watching children spiral with learning loss and depression.
“Depression had taken over. [Ella] lost motivation,” said Jennifer Birch, a mental health therapist in Raleigh, during the committee meeting. “She reported wanting to commit suicide, wanting to die. She had so much shame at not succeeding in school. I’ve heard 30 versions of this last week alone.”
Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt warned that denying children in-person learning would disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable students.
“Even before the COVID crisis, many of our students were behind. Imagine what has happened with remote learning,” Truitt said during the governor’s press conference. “For some children, this is about fulfilling their potential. For others, it’s as simple as ensuring that they have a chance in life…. Our students cannot lose any more time.”