Senate approves measure to resume full in-person learning in North Carolina schools

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The North Carolina Senate voted 29-15 on Tuesday to approve a bill that would fully reopen K-12 schools in North Carolina for in-person learning.

Senate Bill 37 requires all K-12 schools to resume in-person learning for students with special needs without social distancing and all other K-12 classrooms to operate based on school districts’ discretion.

“For months, we’ve heard from families and students who are clamoring to return to in-person learning. The science and data show that we can reopen schools safely,” said Sens. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, co-chairs of the Senate Education Committee and primary sponsors of the bill.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all K-12 schools to convert to remote learning in March, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After scientific data pointed to lower risks in younger children, Cooper called Oct. 5 for full attendance in K-5 public and charter schools. Cooper said last week K-5 public schools should resume in-person learning without the 6-feet social distancing requirement, referred to as Plan A in the state’s guidance, and sixth- through 12th-graders should operate under Plan B, which entails smaller classrooms with social distancing.

“The governor’s empty rhetoric about the importance of in-person instruction does nothing to help kids,” Ballard and Lee said. “The General Assembly is taking decisive action to actually get students back to school.”

Under SB 37, K-12 classrooms without students with special needs could choose to operate Plan A or B. Classrooms that require exceptional needs would operate under Plan A.

Parents still can select remote learning for their children under SB 37, which applies only to the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. School boards would have the ability to choose the best option for their schools and switch from in-person to remote learning based on COVID-19 rates as long as they give the North Carolina Department of Instruction a 72-hour warning.

If the bill becomes law, schools would have 15 days to follow the reopening plan.

At least 90 of the state’s 115 school districts are providing in-person instruction for some or all of their students, Cooper said.

Critics of the bill said it doesn’t consider the lack of scientific research on COVID-19 transmission among middle-school and high-school students. The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest education advocacy organization for public school employees, said teachers want to resume in-person instruction but “with the resources to happen safely.”

The House approved the final passage of Senate Bill 36 on Thursday. It sets aside $1.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief for K-12 schools to reopen and cover other COVID-19-related costs.

All Senate Republicans present Tuesday voted “yes” on the bill. They were joined by two Democrats, Sens. Ben Clark and Kirk deViere, both from Cumberland.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration.

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