RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers on Wednesday finalized a mandate for school districts to offer daily in-person instruction to K-12 students, some of whom have been kept out of classrooms for nearly a year due to COVID-19 safety worries.
The House’s 77-42 vote approving the compromise measure with the Senate — which voted for the same bill Tuesday — sends the legislation to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. The passage now sets up the year’s first public showdown between Republicans, who control the legislature, and Cooper, who can sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
Rather than supporting the legislature’s mandate, Cooper instead is strongly urging any remaining school boards for the state’s 115 districts yet to reopen to offer at least some in-person classes, citing health guidance showing it can be done safely.
Bill supporters want classrooms swiftly reopened, saying students are risking academic failure and mental health difficulties should they have to remain at home for the rest of the school year. While the bill still allows parents to keep their children learning virtually, districts would have about two weeks after the measure is enacted to reopen schools for families who want classroom learning up to five days a week.
In a news release before Wednesday’s vote, Cooper didn’t specifically announce he’d veto the bill but expressed unhappiness with the measure, suggesting it was too restrictive. The measure also would allow children in grades 6-12 to return to classrooms without complying with state guidelines that direct 6 feet (1.8 meters) of social distancing among students in this age group.
“Children should be back in the classroom safely and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to (state) health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies,” Cooper said. “This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.”
While many mostly large districts have kept children at home, some systems have responded since Cooper’s request by opening classrooms again. Thousands of Wake County high schoolers returned to classes Wednesday for the first time since last March. Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students also will return to class starting next week on a rotating basis.
Even though several House and Senate Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the measure this week, getting enough Democrats to override a Cooper veto and hand him a defeat has proven challenging for the GOP over the past two years. Republican majorities fall short of being veto-proof.
Some teachers, especially those at high-risk for COVID-19, have expressed fear about returning to in-person classes. Cooper announced last week that teachers, principals and school staff of all ages could get vaccinated starting Feb. 24. Vaccine supplies may prevent immediate access to the shots, which aren’t a prerequisite under the state’s safety standards for classrooms.
The final measure, approved Wednesday in the House with little debate, directs local school boards to create a process where teachers and staff can self-identify as high-risk for COVID-19, with a goal of giving them alternative work assignments that minimize face-to-face contact. Teachers or staff with sons or daughters who are at high-risk for the virus also could take on alternate responsibilities.
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