Cooper, NC Republicans agree on plan to reopen public schools

RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders announced compromise legislation Wednesday that will mean more K-12 students in North Carolina will return to daily in-person instruction, some almost immediately.

Gov. Roy Cooper, Senate Leader Phil Berger, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, House Speaker Tim Moore and House Minority Leader Robert Reives announced that all public elementary schools will move into Plan A, while middle and high schools can decide on Plan A or B on a district by district basis.

[READ MORE: Senate Bill 220]

The agreement, announced in a rare bipartisan news conference by some the state’s most powerful leaders, comes nearly two weeks after Cooper vetoed a GOP bill that would have mandated all districts reopen with at least partial in-person instruction.

Cooper complained that measure would have kept state and local officials from pulling back classroom teaching should there be unexpected coronavirus outbreaks. Republicans countered that students were suffering academic and behavioral problems in districts that had yet to untether themselves from virtual-only learning, which started in March 2020.

Cooper, who had strongly urged districts in recent weeks to return students to the classrooms, said Wednesday that the agreement will “get all students in schools safely and surely.”

“Today the bill before you tells schools when and how (to reopen),” Cooper said. “The good news is that we all want the same thing, to open our schools to in-person instruction for all students and to do it safely with important emergency protections. ... All elementary schools will be required to operate under Plan A and local districts will have the option of Plan A or plan B for middle and high schools.”

The announcement comes as school districts across the state, including CMS, have started allowing more students into classrooms.

[’We are confident’: CMS approves more in-person learning starting next week]

The new bill, largely negotiated by Cooper and Senate Republicans and expected to receive its first votes later Wednesday, would require all K-5 schools to transition to Plan A with minimal physical social distancing, according to elected leaders.

The deal calls for all elementary schools to open under “Plan A,” a category that means full in-person classes without the distancing requirements of “Plan B,” which has typically been implemented as a mix of in-person and online instruction to cut class sizes and spread students out.

[WSOC SPECIAL SECTION: RETURN TO LEARNING]

Districts would have two options for middle and high schools. They can either adhere to having students separated by at least 6 feet, limiting in-person instruction to just a couple days of week due to space constrictions, or move to Plan A like elementary schools.

Children with IEP or 504 special education plans wouldn’t have to move to Plan A if their school stays in Plan B, but parents would have that option.

[COUNTY-BY-COUNTY: Local school districts’ plans for returning to classrooms]

Plan A means that all students will return to classrooms. However, Cooper did say parents would still be allowed to keep their children in virtual academies if they chose to do so.

”There is a full option for a parent to chose a virtual option for their children,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s administration could still shut schools down by order -- a key sticking point in the back and forth between the governor and Republican leaders -- but only district by district, not with a sweeping statewide order.

The new rules would be effective 21 days after ratification, though school systems can move faster. The bill is likely to go to the Senate floor for a vote later Wednesday. Then it needs to pass the House.

All sides said that they are in agreement and are fast-tracking its approval.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said the legislation was a “fair compromise that returns many students to full-time, in-person instruction.”

The agreement will go into effect 21 days after Cooper signs it into law. His estimate was that it would become law around April 1.

Berger said Tuesday that he and the governor had been discussing the deal for about a week and that an agreement would moot the state Senate’s ongoing effort to override Cooper’s veto on Senate Bill 37, a Republican effort to force more schools to hold in-person classes.

[NC state Board of Education issues new guidance on reopening public schools]

As part of the deal, middle schools and high schools on Plan A will have to share data on virus transmission with the state’s ABC Collaborative, which is studying the coronavirus. Any middle school or high school that decides to move to Plan A must notify North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and describe their safety plan.

“The purpose here is to provide consultation but DHHS will not be able to veto the move,” Berger said. “The governor will be given the authority to order a closure, restriction or reduction of operations within schools but must do so on a district by district basis.”

All local districts will also have the authority to close a school or classroom in the event of an outbreak.

“Coming to an agreement isn’t always easy but it is the right thing to do for North Carolina,” Cooper said.

“We can be an example to the rest of the nation on how you make government, especially democratic representative government, work so that it benefits all of the citizens of our state. So the state of North Carolina can blaze the trail and show how we get things done,” Blue said.

North Carolina Superintendent of Public Education Catherine Truitt said the bill was a “great example to our students of bipartisan efforts.”

It has been nearly a year since Cooper first closed schools as the pandemic spread in North Carolina. He recently vetoed a bill that would have required all of the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts to reopen with at least partial in-person instruction, while also giving parents the choice to keep their kids learning remotely. With one Democrat absent, the Senate fell one vote shy of overriding Cooper’s veto last week.

Current reopening guidance from North Carolina public health officials allows K-5 schools to operate without students being physically separated by 6 feet while seated inside of a classroom, whereas middle and high schools must adhere to the physical distancing guidelines.

Education leaders said last week that they want all districts to make available at least partial in-person instruction by the end of the month to any public school student who wants it.

WHAT WILL LOCAL DISTRICTS DO?

The big question now is how will this impact the plans already in place for school districts across the Carolinas?

For example, CMS on Tuesday night approved moving elementary students to four days a week in-person.

Union County elementary schools have been going in-person four days a week for a while. Will this mean they would move to five days a week now? And what about middle and high schools, who have been going back under Plan B?

Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis has asked the state if five days would be required or if four days counts as Plan A. Many districts told us they were still waiting for more details about the bill to share a response -- or make a decision.

A Union County representative told Channel 9 they have not made any decisions regarding the new legislation.

“I think the most important thing is returning these kids to in-person learning,” said CMS parent Meg Kemp. “Giving that option not only for K-5 but 6-12 on a Plan A option -- leaving it up to each district. I hope CMS will listen to the direction of our state leaders and allow these kids more in-person time.”

Kemp told Channel 9 the in-person days have been wonderful for her elementary children, and she is hopeful the school district will choose to move beyond the newly approved 4-day in-person plan and send students back all five days.

“They’re smiling. They’re happy. They’re excited to tell me all about their day,” she said.

Some districts already know what they’ll be doing. Iredell-Statesville Schools told us that though they need to work out social distancing protocols and submit their plan to the state health department, they will definitely be moving to Plan A for all students.

The other question is how will social distancing work for districts who choose Plan A for middle and high schools? Many wouldn’t be able to do so and maintain the required 6 feet of social distance. Will that requirement be changed?

Channel 9 is working to get these questions answered. Check back with wsoctv.com for updates.

WTVD, The Associated Press and WRAL all contributed to this article.