NC bill to return more students to classrooms gets final OK

NC bill to return more students to classrooms gets final OK

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(WNCT photo)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers gave their final approval on Thursday to a directive that will put more K-12 students in classrooms five days a week by telling all districts to offer in-person instruction no later than early April.

The measure, which received a unanimous House vote the day after similar Senate support, was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper Thursday evening. The Democratic governor and Republican legislators negotiated the compromise legislation, which resolved issues that prompted Cooper to veto a previous school-reopening measure nearly two weeks ago.

Carteret County Schools to begin process of full in-person learning for students starting March 22

Nearly all of the state’s 115 local districts already have some in-person instruction. But GOP lawmakers were unhappy with the pace at which schools were bringing the state’s nearly 1.5 million students back to class as the COVID-19 pandemic eased and data showed low transmission among young people.

They said students who first began learning online in March 2020 were suffering academically and needed to return to class. Parents and local school leaders have lobbied lawmakers to bring back children.

“The General Assembly has made it our No. 1 priority” to get students back in school, Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said before the House’s 119-0 vote. “For many families, there’s still much work to do to return to in-person full time.”

Under the new legislation, a district’s K-5 schools must provide instruction to all students without physical social distancing limits, or what is known as “Plan A.” This essentially means students will have classroom instruction five days a week. School boards are directed to open middle and high schools either using Plan A, or they can keep requiring at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance between students through “Plan B.” The “Plan B” policy largely limits in-person classes to a couple of days a week because of building space restrictions.

Until now , state school guidance had allowed K-5 schools to use Plan A or Plan B, and grades 6-12 to follow Plan B. Schools still must offer virtual-only learning to families who still want it.

Middle and high schools that move to Plan B under the new legislation must notify state health officials and participate in a COVID-19 data collection effort with Duke University. In a legislative concession to Cooper, the governor also can order school buildings closed in an individual district if coronavirus cases worsen there.

“I don’t want to and don’t plan to exercise that authority, because I want to get children back in school,” Cooper said Wednesday.

While districts will have 21 days from the bill’s enactment to comply, local education leaders can make changes immediately if they wish.

The directive contrasts with Cooper administration policy that for months opposed allowing older students in class without being 6 feet apart, citing CDC guidance. Faulting the bill, the North Carolina Association of Educators noted its departure from the CDC’s recommendations. Teachers have been able to receive vaccinations since last month.

But Cooper said Wednesday his administration’s top health leaders can support allowing middle and high schools to convene under Plan A in a few weeks given the state’s improving COVID-19 case trends.

Legislators from both parties and Cooper held a rare joint news conference on Wednesday to announce the compromise. Such agreements have been rare during the past two years, as Cooper successfully blocked bills he opposed with vetoes. As in the previous session, Republicans hold House and Senate majorities, but they aren’t veto-proof.

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