By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — N.C. lawmakers have sent a bill to reopen schools for K-12 students to the Senate floor. Under the bill, schools must offer K-12 students in-person learning at least part of the week. Special needs kids would regain full-time, in-person learning. The Senate Rules Committee unanimously gave Senate Bill 37 a favorable report Wednesday, Feb. 3.
But Democrats questioned the decision to allow schools to teach older students under the minimal social distancing of Plan A. The governor opposes any reopening mandates.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, on Monday publicly backed reopening schools. He held a news conference urging schools to let children back in the classroom, though he voiced concerns with the bill. He did not promise a veto, but he argued for leaving the decision up to local districts.
“I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Cooper said Tuesday, Feb. 2. “Let’s give these local leaders a chance.”
But Republicans aren’t waiting for local leaders to act.
“Families will have the remote option, should they choose, but more importantly, they will now have access to in-person instruction,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga.
Ballard wants to return all K-12 students into the classroom at least part-time. Her bill gives schools the option to embrace a more ambitious reopening plan than the one laid out in state health guidance. Older students could return to the classroom full-time and with minimal social distancing under Plan A.
Democrats questioned the decision to give sixth- through 12th-graders the option of Plan A. They criticized the differences between the state health department’s new guidance and the reopening bill. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recommended sending older students back to school under Plan B, with moderate social distancing.
“DHHS released new guidance that does not recommend Plan A for sixth to 12th-graders because it runs counter to the CDC guidelines of maintaining 6 feet,” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said. “What is the justification for this legislation proposing a Plan A for sixth-graders, given that there’s a higher risk of exposure or spread?”
Ballard pushed back, arguing that her bill did not change any safety protocols from the state.
“Prevention measures, like the ones we have in N.C. schools, they work,” Ballard said. “Schools can reopen safely, even during periods of high community transmission, when they follow the safety protocols. … I’m just trying to get these kids back in the building.”
Ballard has made reopening schools for special needs students a priority.
Wake County mother Sarah Baker told lawmakers her son hasn’t really received services since March. Her son can’t walk or talk, and remote learning has been a disaster for him. His teachers were only able to help him when the district temporarily reopened.
“If you had seen his face when he got on the bus that first day — he doesn’t understand why teachers are on the computer, but he does know what the school bus meant,” Baker said. “He was happier than I’ve seen him for a long time. … For children like him, school isn’t school at all unless they’re in the building.”