RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) The day after Gov. Roy Cooper (D) urged school districts to allow kids to have the option of in-person learning, a Senate panel moved forward Wednesday with a bill that would require that option to be available.
A vote in the full Senate is scheduled for Thursday. The bill calls for local school districts to make in-person learning available under Plan A or Plan B while still allowing for a remote option for families that choose it.
School districts would have to offer Plan A for students with exceptional needs.
“(The governor) offered a lot of words and urged action but without action himself,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-45th), who sponsored the school reopening bill. “Perhaps it’s fear of responsibility and really stepping out in faith and ensuring that they feel comfortable to lead in this way. But, I trust our principals and our school leaders to keep our kids safe.”
Cooper has not said if he would sign the bill but said he does have concerns with it, and said his recommendation for schools to open for in-person learning should remain a recommendation and not a requirement.
“I have some concerns with (the bill), particularly stripping out some of the health protocols that are in place,” he said Tuesday.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) called attention to the state’s latest public health guidance on school reopening.
It calls for kids in grades K-12 to “return to in-person instruction five days per week to the fullest extent possible.”
But, for grades K-5 that can occur under Plan A (minimal social distancing) while grades 6-12 should follow protocols under Plan B (moderate social distancing), which includes six feet of social distancing.
“There is an inconsistency between Plan A in this bill for 6th through 12th graders in what has been proposed by DHHS,” Chaudhuri said.
When asked about that, Ballard said, “I do think it’s safe enough. I think at this point, there will be families choosing not to send their kids back. So, I think you’re already going to have a reduced student population count.”
Much of the debate this week on the bill has focused on a study by the ABC Science Collaborative, a joint effort from researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, which found just 32 cases of secondary transmission in schools among roughly 90,000 students and staff in 11 districts across the state with in-person instruction under a hybrid plan over nine weeks last fall.
“It’s clear we are on the same page, I believe, in ensuring schools can reopen. I took action. And, I just wanted to make it clear to folks and to families that you can do this. This is safe,” said Ballard.
The bill allows for an individual classroom or school to close due to staffing issues caused by COVID-19 or students needing to quarantine.
Districts must inform the Department of Public Instruction within 72 hours.
Jennifer Birch is a parent who’s supporting the Senate reopening bill.
She’s a mental health counselor who works with kids and has four children herself, three of which are in Wake County Public Schools.
“We are gonna see the repercussions of the pandemic for a long time,” she said. “I worry about the disparity between those who have been in a classroom learning throughout the year and those who haven’t.”
She said her fourth-grade son is on an individualized education program and “struggling at home” with remote learning.
Wake County’s school board voted Tuesday to allow in-person class to resume the week of Feb. 15.
Pre-K through third grade and regional special education programs will return to school full-time.
Fourth through 12th grades will return in three-week rotations.
“As adults, we don’t have the coping skills to handle a pandemic and remote learning, much less children,” Birch said. “Teachers and staff in the school are so vital because they are such a secure base for kids. They’re a consistent caregiver that loves them all day.”
The Public School Forum of North Carolina on Wednesday echoed the call by the North Carolina Association of Educators to move teachers and other school personnel up the prioritization list to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
They’re included in Group 3 with other frontline essential workers, but it’s unclear when the state will receive enough doses to move to Group 3.
The state is currently vaccinating Group 2, which includes people 65 and older.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved a COVID-19 relief bill that includes $1.6 billion to aid schools with reopening.
It also includes $94.8 million for vaccine distribution and $546.6 million for rental assistance.
The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.