NC Republicans continue push for in-person school option as teachers advocate for vaccine prioritization

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Republican leaders in the General Assembly said they plan to pass a bill this week that would require school districts to offer the option of in-person learning. Teachers, meanwhile, are advocating to be moved up the prioritization list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Senate is set to take its final vote Tuesday on the bill.

Joseph Kyzer, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, said he’s aiming to get the bill passed by the end of the week “given the urgency for students.”

Kelly Mann is a mother of three girls, two of whom are in public schools in Wake County. She’s advocated for schools to allow families the choice to return in person and is urging state lawmakers to support the bill.

“At least in Wake County, we’ve seen a school board that has been leading with fear, with feelings, with opinions,” she said. “This bill will take the political feelings and the opinions and other thoughts out of it and make this about what is best for our schools.”

Hours after Gov. Roy Cooper (D) urged schools to allow more kids to come back in person last week, Wake County’s Board of Education voted to resume in-person learning the week of Feb. 15. Pre-K through third grade will be allowed back under Plan A, which calls for minimal social distancing. All other grades will return in three-cohort rotations to comply with Plan B, which calls for six feet of social distancing.

Dr. Mandy Cohen and Cooper have urged school districts to allow in-person instruction. State health guidance allows for Plan A in grades K-5 and Plan B in grades 6-12. Cooper has not mandated that schools reopen.

The governor has raised concerns about the bill being voted on this week for allowing school districts the choice of going back either under Plan A or B regardless of grade level. He has not said if he would veto it.

The North Carolina Association of Educators has called for teachers and other school employees to be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

They’re included in Group 3 with other frontline essential workers. It’s not clear when North Carolina will move to Group 3. The state is currently in Group 2, which includes people 65 years and older.

When asked how many employees the NCAE believes should be vaccinated to resume in-person classes, spokesman Kevin Rogers wrote in an email, “It is difficult to estimate because it depends on the timeframe you’re talking about. If in-person were to resume statewide on March 1, for example, maybe 20% would be sufficient. But if we’re talking about August at the start of the new school year, it would have (to) be close to 100% since we would anticipate many more families would be comfortable switching from virtual to in-person at that time, which would require many more educators.”

Keith Poston, president of WakeEd Partnership, a non-profit group in Wake County, said on Monday he agrees teachers should be eligible to get vaccinated.

“Everyone’s exhausted. But, let’s not let our exhaustion with the pandemic sort of force us to make foolish decisions when we’re so close,” he said.

Cohen, the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, has pointed to the low supply of vaccine the state received and said it could be weeks until Group 3 becomes eligible. In recent weeks, the state has received about 145,000 doses of vaccine for a state of about 10.5 million people, she said.

Poston said even if the state did not make teachers eligible now, he would want them to be prioritized first when Group 3 begins.

According to Education Week, 26 states as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico have either made all or at least some educators eligible to receive the vaccine.

“We’re not taking a maximalist position of no in-person learning until every single teacher is vaccinated. Although, honestly, I think that’s what needs to happen. But, we’re also understanding that we’re having a real vaccine supply problem that’s national,” said Poston.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that vaccinating teachers isn’t “a prerequisite” to safely reopen schools but that other measures must be in place, including masks and social distancing. The CDC is expected to have updated guidance for school reopening this week.

“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely. Safely,” President Joe Biden said Sunday in an interview with CBS. “You have to have fewer people in the classroom. You have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked. Our CDC commissioner is going to be coming out with science-based judgment, within I think as early as Wednesday as to lay out what the minimum requirements are.”

Mann moved one of her daughters to private school this year because she believed it would be better for her academically and socially. She said she’s trying to remain optimistic that county leaders will bring more kids back five days per week, allowing her other daughters to attend in person full-time as well.

“It’s the first time anyone has thought about children and tried to take action on behalf of our children,” Mann said. “Stop making this a partisan situation. And, let’s make this: you’re for children or you’re against children.”

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