Wake County Schools leaders raise concerns over re-opening bill

COVID-19 and schools

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Wake County school leaders raised concerns Friday about a bill that would require K-12 public school districts to offer in-person classes, as WCPSS prepares to reopen next week for the first time this semester.

Wake County Board of Education Chairman Keith Sutton urged the General Assembly to “slow down.”

“There are parts of the legislation that I feel, we feel, compromise that safety to some degree,” Sutton said.

On Thursday, the House voted 74-44 in favor of the bill.

House and Senate members are meeting over the weekend to try to resolve differences the two chambers had in an effort to pass a compromise version of the bill early next week.

If the bill becomes law, schools would have 15 days to comply.

Researchers at the General Assembly say about 20 of the state’s 115 school districts are operating remotely.

In addition, the bill also requires schools to offer in-person classes under the state’s minimal social distancing plan (Plan A) for students with exceptional needs.

“We could see an additional 10,000 students moved into our buildings based on that legislation, so that’s going to take some time for us to sort of figure out,” Sutton said.

Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore said leaders are concerned about the loss of local control if there is another surge of COVID-19 cases.

The bill allows administrators to move individual classrooms or schools to remote learning but not an entire district.

“There will be potentially concerns moving forward if there is a surge or if the variants cause issues,” Moore said.

Following the House vote Thursday, Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) said, “They can do what they need to do to address that.”

When asked about the issue of closing schools versus a district, he acknowledged that point and said, “But nonetheless, why would you close a whole district when there’s an issue at one school?”

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines on returning to in-person learning.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday the agency is “not mandating” schools reopen but giving recommendations for how to do that safely, including wearing masks and distancing.

The CDC is encouraging states to prioritize teachers for the COVID-19 vaccine.

This week, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said school employees will be next to become eligible on Feb. 24.

Rep. Bradford said that decision helped bolster the case to require the in-person learning option.

“This bill does exactly what we need to do, which is get children back into school so they can learn.

“We’re down to three months of the academic year. It’s time for them to get back,” he said.

Moore County Schools are already operating in-person classes under the state’s health guidelines.

“The challenge has come with the management of quarantines,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “Across the district, we’re constantly managing anywhere from 12 to 18 groups that are in quarantine.”

He said since the holiday surge of COVID-19 cases, the district moved two schools to remote learning for two weeks as administrators try to balance the risks posed by the virus with wanting to give families the option of in-person classes.

“To have all those back in school who desire to be back in school has just been very heartwarming, and it’s been very productive as well,” he said. “Given the commitment of our teachers and our students and our families to washing hands and wearing masks, we’ve been able to offset the risks associated with minimal social distancing.”

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