NC bill to return more students to classrooms becomes law

RALEIGH — North Carolina elected leaders finalized a directive on Thursday that will put more K-12 students in classrooms five days a week by telling all districts to offer in-person instruction no later than early April.

The order was contained in legislation that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law hours after the House approved the bill unanimously. The Senate gave it a similar vote on Wednesday. The Democratic governor and Republican legislators negotiated the compromise legislation, which resolved issues that prompted Cooper to veto a previous school-reopening measure nearly two weeks ago.

[Cooper, NC Republicans agree on plan to reopen public schools]

Nearly all of the state’s 115 local districts already have some in-person instruction. But GOP lawmakers were unhappy with the pace at which schools were bringing the state’s nearly 1.5 million students back to class as the COVID-19 pandemic eased and data showed low transmission among young people.

They said students who first began learning online in March 2020 were suffering academically and needed to return to class. Parents and local school leaders have lobbied lawmakers to bring back children.

“The General Assembly has made it our No. 1 priority” to get students back in school, Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said before the House’s 119-0 vote. “For many families, there’s still much work to do to return to in-person full time.”

Under the new legislation, a district’s K-5 schools must provide instruction to all students without physical social distancing limits, or what is known as “Plan A.” This essentially means students will have classroom instruction five days a week. School boards are directed to open middle and high schools either using Plan A, or they can keep requiring at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance between students through “Plan B.” The “Plan B” policy largely limits in-person classes to a couple of days a week because of building space restrictions.

[READ MORE: Senate Bill 220]

Until now, state school guidance had allowed K-5 schools to use Plan A or Plan B, and grades 6-12 to follow Plan B. Schools still must offer virtual-only learning to families who still want it.

[WSOC SPECIAL SECTION: RETURN TO LEARNING]

Middle and high schools that move to Plan B under the new legislation must notify state health officials and participate in a COVID-19 data collection effort with Duke University. In a legislative concession to Cooper, the governor also can order school buildings closed in an individual district if coronavirus cases worsen there.