LUMBERTON — Compromise legislation that seeks to send children back to the classroom in schools across the state received unanimous Senate approval Wednesday, and it will affect operations of the Public Schools of Robeson County if it becomes law.
A House vote could come as early as Thursday
The bill, which was unveiled Wednesday, mandates that all K-5 schools reopen their classrooms to students without social distancing for five days each week.
Leaders of the PSRC were not engaging in formal discussions about the legislation as of Wednesday afternoon, said Craig Lowry, chairman of PSRC’s Board of Education. Lowry was monitoring the situation and anticipated discussions to be “forthcoming.”
If the legislation were to pass, the school district would simply revisit its reentry plan and adjust its operations accordingly, the chairman said.
“District leaders were informed of the new bill introduced by Gov. Cooper that would impact K-12 school districts across North Carolina. We are going to do what best meets the needs of our students here in Robeson County,” said Gordon Burnette, PSRC chief information officer.
“We will continue to monitor the progress and success of our current reentry plan across schools within the district and will discuss this matter during a Cabinet meeting on Monday morning. A change in overall operations for in-person learning would have to be voted on and approved by our board of education,” he said.
The legislation allows districts to choose between two options for middle and high schools. Schools may elect to have students separated by at least 6 feet (under Plan B), limit in-person instruction to a couple days each week, or move to five days of in-person learning per week like elementary schools (Plan A). Parents can still choose to have their children continue learning virtually.
Schools that choose traditional in-person learning for grades 6-12 must notify the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to submit their plan for moving to Plan A. The DHHS can’t veto a local district’s decision to return to the traditional in-person learning model, according to information from the office of state Senate leader Sen. Phil Berger. Parents of students in grades six through 12 with IEPs and attending schools in Plan B can choose to allow their children to learn in-person.
The requirements of the legislation become effective 21 days after it becomes law. School districts will be authorized to move to their choice of learning after the legislation becomes law.
“This agreement also requires any school that opens any grades of six-12 under Plan A to partner with the ABC Science Collaborative so the Collaborative can collect and analyze data related to reopening schools. The Collaborative’s efforts will be funded through $500,000 of federal COVID relief funds allocated to the Department of Public Instruction,” according to Berger’s office.
Gov. Roy Cooper has the authority to close or reduce school operations on a “district-by-district basis,” according to Berger’s office.
The legislation comes after a veto by Cooper of Senate Bill 37, which called for schools across the state to resume in-person learning. Cooper and lawmakers came to a compromise Wednesday.
“This legislation accomplishes what we’ve wanted from the beginning, getting kids back into the classroom,” said Berger, R-Rockingham. “I want to thank Sens. Ballard, Lee, and deViere for standing up for our students. Our students will be able to return to the classroom and school districts will retain the flexibility to open in a way that best fits their needs. I look forward to this bill being passed and signed into law as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, is the co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and is primary sponsor of SB 37.
“Reopening schools has been at the front of all of our minds since the beginning of the pandemic. This agreement signals a shared priority. I’m grateful to the parents who worked in tandem with us advocating for a return to school, my colleagues who worked around the clock to get this deal accomplished, and Superintendent (Catherine) Truitt who has been supportive of students and educators throughout this entire process,” Ballard said.
United States Sen. Thom Tillis also praised the bipartisan efforts to send students back to the classroom.
“I’ve heard countless stories from North Carolina parents about the hardships their families and children have faced as a result of remote learning, especially for students with physical and intellectual disabilities who need in-person schooling and services,” Tillis said.
“I am glad that Gov. Cooper, Speaker (Tim) Moore, and Sen. Berger were able to reach a bipartisan compromise to get students back to school safely and quickly. School reopenings in North Carolina and the rest of the nation must be based on what the scientists — not powerful unions — tell us, and I remain committed to pushing commonsense legislation to support our school districts as they put the well-being of students first by safely resuming in-person learning,” he added.
The compromise legislation was not received as well by the N.C. Association of Educators, which stated the legislation failed to acknowledge the work of teachers and may send students and educators back to the classroom prematurely.
The NCAE stands by the need to keep social distancing measures in place to keep educators and students safe as recommended by the CDC, NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said. Though educators agree with legislators in their eagerness to return to the classroom, they wish to do so when it is safe.
“This agreement between the governor and leaders in the state legislature will needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators, and staff into school buildings that do not comply with CDC guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians,” Walker Kelly said.
“It is deeply disturbing that the governor and legislative leaders failed to acknowledge the work that educators have been doing to keep students engaged and learning during the worst pandemic in a century while effectively absolving themselves of any further responsibility for the health and safety of our public schools and those who learn and work in them. If the social and emotional needs of students is as important a priority to legislative leaders as their comments suggested today, we are looking forward to the immediate reversal of the decade of declining funding for school counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and teacher assistants. Anything less would lay bare the partisan hypocrisy of justifying a politically expedient return in-person instruction with the emotional needs of our own students,” her statement continues.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said the decision reflected the desire to put students’ needs first.
“Today’s decision is about restoring choice to parents and students as well as providing greater flexibility to school districts,” Truitt said. “Today is about putting our students first. I’m glad to see the science prevail and grateful to see state leaders come together and transcend party lines for the sake of our students.”
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